You’ve almost reached the end of January – undoubtedly alongside your bank balance and your tether. Many of us will have set out this new year with noble goals – get fit, eat healthy, meditate – and there will be a number of us who have managed to stick to our new paths. Unfortunately, most will have stumbled and fallen right around the second week of January with little intention of picking up where they left off. Whether Just Do It Day serves as an incentive to restart our failed habits is debatable and, even if it was to, chances are we would succumb to the same hurdles.
Coined by Nike in the late 80s, ‘Just Do It’ fast went onto become a globally recognised ‘kick up the butt’ that went far beyond any brand recognition. It was intended to act as a three syllable motivator – designed to stir up the fire in our bellies and force us into action. And while we can all appreciate the overt enthusiasm behind the phrase, it fails to inspire any long-term change.
Goals vs systems – creating a new identity
The problem with most resolutions, and general vows to incorporate better habits into our lives, is the focus on the end goal – the “it”- with little attention given to the “how”. While we can easily assert that we want to “get fit”, “eat healthy” or “meditate”, it is pointless if we don’t have the systems in place to achieve these outcomes. As US author Scott Adams asserts “Losers have goals. Winners have systems”.
This is not to dismiss goals. Goals provide a worthy trajectory but systems are better for making progress. Consider the moment a goal is achieved – alongside a brief sensation of euphoria comes the question “what now?” Achieving your goal only changes your life for a moment whereas successful habits provide daily wins. Given that our habits amount to around 40% of our day, systems and habits becomes less about some tangible outcome and more about establishing your identity. This notion of identity is integral in habit change – it shifts the focus from an end result to the idea that we are becoming the person we want to be. Each time we perform a habit, we reinforce our new identity making the continuation of that habit easier because it is who we are.
What is a habit?
A habit is something that a person does in a regular and repeated way to the point it becomes automatic. According to Charles Duhigg’s “Habit Loop” there is a discernible pattern inherent to every habit: A cue which triggers a habit; a craving that motivates you to engage in the habit; a response which equates to the habit itself; and a reward which serves as the end goal of any habit. “The cue is about noticing the reward. The craving is about wanting the reward. The response is about obtaining the reward.” (James Clear) As Duhigg states, “understanding these elements can help us in our understanding how to change bad habits or form better ones”.
How to develop a habit
By breaking a habit down in such a way, we can better tailor our behaviours in order to promote our good habits – and equally – quash any bad ones. Author of Atomic Habits, James Clear thankfully goes to the effort of spelling out this 4 step process.
Make it obvious (cue)
Many of us leave our new habits to chance and assume our good intentions will simply draw us to them. This requires a clear moment of active choice each day whereas by following a specific plan for where and when a habit takes place removes that need to decide – you are simply following a plan. The goal is to make the time and location so obvious that, with enough repetition, it will become automatic.
To further support your plan you can create visual cues – designing your environment in such a way that you are reminded to engage in your habit. Want to read more? Leave a book on your bed as a cue. You can also “habit stack” which involves adding your new habit on top of something you are already guaranteed to do every day i.e. having your morning coffee.
Make it attractive (craving)
As doctor and author Simon Marshall asserts, “If we can find a way to make the experience intrinsically pleasurable (dopamine), we’ve got a much better chance of it becoming a long-term habits”. This reference to dopamine is important as it is the neurotransmitter largely responsible for our cravings. Dopamine is not only released when we experience an event but when we anticipate it. It is therefore the anticipation of a reward that actually motivates us to act.
By temptation bundling, we can link an action we want to do with something we need to do. This allows us to derive instant gratification for habits that don’t, on their own, provide immediate benefits.
Make it easy (response)
As we embark on new habits, we often aim too high increasing our chances of failure because it’s simply “too hard”. The key is to start with repetition not perfection. As you repeat, the effort required over time will gradually decrease until the behaviour eventually becomes habitual. Consider even just two minutes of your new habit for a period of time – once you have mastered the art of showing up, you can then scale your habit up. Similarly, you want to reduce any habit friction. As research psychologist and author Wendy Wood notes, “The friction you set up or remove in the environment is going to have an effect long after you’ve gotten discouraged and are less excited about the new behaviour.”
Make it satisfying (reward)
As Clear points out “Pleasure teaches the brain that a behaviour is worth remembering and repeating”. The secret is to derive some immediate satisfaction and, eventually, once the long-term benefits (more energy, weight loss etc) become evident these secondary rewards won’t mean so much. What’s important here is that the reward correlates with the new identity i.e. don’t reward yourself with wine for having completed a workout.
By using a “habit tracker”, you can keep a record of your daily wins. This can be extremely effective in stopping you from breaking your streak.
Rely on your systems – not motivation
Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.Vincent Van Gogh
Motivation is fleeting and unreliable. To depend on it for continued change puts a lot of pressure on ourselves, particularly on our bad days. By planning effectively, rewarding ourselves appropriately and building habits gradually we allow ourselves to become the kind of person who those habits embody. So, perhaps, before we Just Do It we should take some time to consider how – start small, stack, repeat. It might not have the same punch that Nike intended but at least it had the potential to get us to our “it”.
The inspiration for the piece came solely from James Clear’s Atomic Habits. I initially listened to the audiobook (free from the Libby app) and then went on to read the hard copy which my mother just so happened to have. I would recommend the book to anyone trying to kick start (and keep) any new habits. It offers practical, real life examples which are likely to correlate with some of your own goals. By taking the time to write this piece, I am trying to follow through with my own personal habit of writing more.