There's no denying how wonderful it'd be if cultivating healthy habits was a little simpler. Let's be real, habit change is difficult. We've all fallen off the wagon trying to change some health-related habit(s). It is innate to desire simplicity. We want clean eating to be easy, exercise to be second nature, sleep to be restful, and relationships to be fruitful. Although I can't quite promise all of that (sounds a little bit like Heaven to me ;)), I will show how to cultivate habit change with a simple formula and a personal example.
Before we dive in, let's define the purpose of habits. James Clear, a behavior and habit expert, defines the purpose of habits is "to solve the problems of life with as little energy and effort as possible." Simply put, habits help make our life simple and efficient. In order to cultivate habits, we must start small and make incremental changes. Making small changes to our daily routine results in massive, compounded results. Clear writes, "Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. Getting 1% better every day counts for a lot in the long-run...Small changes often appear to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold. The most powerful outcomes of any compounding process are delayed. You need to be patient."
Now that we understand the purpose of habits let's discuss how to create (or break) habits. James Clear reveals the four laws of behavior change:
1st Law (Cue): Make it Obvious.
2nd Law (Craving): Make it Attractive.
3rd Law (Response): Make it easy.
4th Law (Reward): Make it satisfying.
Clear then inverts the laws to explain how to break a bad habit:
Inversion of the 1st Law (Cue): Make it invisible.
Inversion of the 2nd Law (Craving): Make it unattractive.
Inversion of the 3rd Law (Response): Make it difficult.
Inversion of the 4th Law (Reward): Make it unsatisfying.
By viewing habit change through these four laws, it becomes far more approachable because it is systematized. Now that you understand the simple formula, let's bring it to light with a personal example.
A few weeks ago I started a new workout regiment. Whenever I start a new workout regiment, I take time to assess what I want to achieve. I write short term goals and long term goals. The three short term goals I wrote were...
Stick to my nutrition (get in 4 servings of veggies, 4 servings of protein, 2 servings of fruit, 2 servings of complex carbs, 1-2 servings of healthy fat...one treat day/week).
Do my workouts in the morning (first 30 minutes of waking up)!
Quiet time daily.
As I began my new workout regiment, I was well aware these 3 short term goals would not be accomplished in the first week of my workout program. I had to slowly introduce parts of these goals to not overwhelm myself, and to cultivate sustainable change. By changing one small aspect of my routine, I am reaping the benefits of compound interest, and increasing my confidence in my ability to change. Here's how I started small:
Before you read these points, I want you to keep in mind a few different things...
- I have been working out 5-6 days a week for over a year (and worked out often before that).
- I had already been eating relatively clean and meal prepping.
- I had stuck to my nutrition plan for a long period of time in the past, and this was already close to what I was doing.
In the week before my program, I choose to make sure I still got my workouts in.
In the first week of my program, I chose to do my workouts in the morning but didn’t consider it a defeat if it was after 30 minutes of waking up. Beyond that, my wake-up time was a bit later than normal because of quarantine.
In the second week of my workout program, I continued to focus on doing my workouts in the morning.
In the third week of my workout program, I started focusing on my nutrition plan, to make sure I ate 4 servings of veggies, 4 servings of protein, 2 servings of fruit, 2 servings of complex carbs, 1-2 servings of a healthy fat...one treat day/week.
In the fourth week of my workout program, I continued with my nutrition plan but adjusted my treat day. I decided to make sure I stuck to my nutrition plan and allowed myself a treat as desired -- aiming for the 80/20 mindset. I made this adjustment because I felt that waiting all week to eat a treat felt restrictive and just made me want the treat all the more. By giving myself more freedom and flexibility, my desire for it decreased.
For the fifth week of my workout program (this week), I chose to plan out my dinners and have a rough idea of breakfast and lunch but to have a little more flexibility. I felt as though my two weeks of structure allowed me to be a little less rigid, but gave me a great reset and reminder of how I need to be fueling my body. I still am making sure I get in all my vegetables, and protein this week (the hardest for me) and I am choosing to do my devotions before my workout and continuing to exercise in the morning.
As you can see, I continued to build on my new behaviors as I went. I added somewhat small things each week, and I followed James Clear's four laws on how to create a good habit. For working out in the morning, here's how I followed the four laws.
- My cue (make it obvious): After I woke up and brushed my teeth, I immediately put on my workout clothes (including my tennis shoes!) It was obvious I was going to exercise.
- My craving (make it attractive): I knew if I did my workout right away, it wouldn't be hanging over my head the rest of the day. I hate having it hang over my head, so this was (and is!) very attractive to me.
- My response (make it easy): All I had to do was walk into my spare bedroom, pull up my workout, and start. My weights are there. My workout is already designed. It is simple to get started.
- My reward (make it satisfying): I knew how good I would feel when I was done (#endorphins)! I also liked the idea of being able to shower and only get ready for my day once. Additionally, I knew it would wake me up and give me productive energy for my day.
By cultivating this habit, it takes a lot of stress off my plate. There's no longer room to debate, push it off, or change my mind. Exercising in the morning is simply something I do...just like any other habit! It is solving a life problem "with as little energy and effort as possible" (James Clear).
What is one small thing you can do today to start cultivating a healthy, balanced, and joy-filled life? Share it in the comments and think through what your cue, cravings, response, and rewards will be!
To learn more about habit change, consider reading James Clear's New York Times Best Seller, "Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones"