This morning I was meeting a friend to discuss our businesses over breakfast. As I was waiting for a table, the person ahead of me turned to me and said, “I think you dropped something.” I looked down and there was a folded sticky note on the ground. It wasn’t mine – I hadn’t dropped it – but I was curious. So I picked it up, opened, and read it. Here’s what it says in broad handwriting scrawl: “start returning books + start creating a reveling list.”
I laughed. This is clearly someone who is trying to form new habits.
It’s early in the year, and many of us have aspirations. We want to stop doing certain things, and start to do something more regularly - like pursue our creative outlet, or meditate, or exercise, or sleep more soundly, or work super productively, or eat healthfully, or return library books on time, or create a reveling list, or a myriad of other things. We want to feel good, do well, and make the most of the year ahead.
“A habit is a routine or behavior that is performed regularly - and, in many cases, automatically.”
Reading that definition, provided by James Clear in Atomic Habits, made me think about that difference between a routinely scheduled action and a habit. The key is that habits are often automatic, done without thinking much about it. Therefore with less mental effort and often less lead-up time. Our habits compound, especially when they are happening without thinking - and they can compound for us to help us fulfill our potential, or against us if the habit undermines or holds us back.
Three things we want to do: create new “good” habits, shift or stop current “bad” habits, and be aware of “neutral” habits. What may be a good habit for one person could be a bad habit for someone else, and vice-versa. Becoming aware of our habits -- and whether they are helping or harming us in some way -- is very helpful. So is being aware of neutral habits, especially as they may be very useful as a base habit to link a new habit you want to form.
We can set ourselves up to make the habits we want to form easier to do. We can make the habit easy, convenient, in a path of travel, and have related supplies or gear ready to use. For example, the person who wrote the sticky note could make it a habit to keep library books near their door, so anytime they go out it could be easy to just grab the books that need to be returned when they leave. Convenient and easy.
We can also trigger good habits by connecting them with an established habit. The person who wrote the sticky note could simply add “today’s reveling: _______” at the start or end of a daily to-do list they already create. Or if this person is addicted to checking email (and okay with that habit), they might create their reveling list in an email they update and send to themselves regularly. Simple.
Experts who study habits all seem to agree on focusing all focus on small, implementable and sustainable habits. Founder and director of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University, and author of the new book Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything, psychologist BJ Fogg has developed what he calls the Tiny Habits Method.
BJ Fogg says on his Tiny Habits website, “Forming a habit is like growing a plant. Let me explain . . . 1. You start with something tiny (a seed or a sprout). 2. You find a good spot for it in your garden (proper soil, light, moisture). 3. You nourish your tiny plant so the roots get established. As you do these three things, your tiny plant will take root and thrive.
Let's apply the points above to how habit formation works: 1. You start with a tiny behavior. 2. You find a good spot in your daily routine for this tiny behavior. 3. You nourish your tiny behavior so it gets firmly established in your life. As you do these three things, your new habit will take root and thrive. With practice, you will form habits quickly and easily.”
Fogg’s research has shown that emotions create habits - and celebration is an essential factor in forming habits. He writes that, “when you do a behavior and feel a positive emotion about it, your brain pays attention. It essentially thinks, "Wow, that felt good. I want to do that behavior again!" The stronger the emotion, the more deeply your brain rewires. For emotion to rewire your brain, you must feel the emotion while you are doing the behavior, or immediately after.
All habits form in the same way. The habit part of our brain doesn't care if society considers a behavior good or bad.”
Seth Godin, in his January 10, 2020 email, wrote: “it turns out that real progress comes not from measuring ourselves against everyone else’s pace, but in building habits. And habits come from streaks.
You’re almost certainly never going to win a 26-mile marathon, but if you train every day, you’ll finish One. ... Show up every day. Do the work, return tomorrow. Drip by drip, day by day. Habits lead to commitments and commitments create learning.”
There are super useful tools to help us track streaks of habit, like the Habit Roadmap, which provides the structure to track and easily see your habit-forming streaks for 13-week (3 month) stretches at a time. Or notebook organizers like the BestSelf journal, which has space for tracking 5 habits day-by-day in a weekly summary.
“The most effective way to change your habits is to focus not on what you want to achieve but who you want to become.” James Clear writes.
Focusing on who we want to become is a big mind-shift, at least for me. It’s the shift from a goal to lose 10 pounds to I want to BE lean and energetic and confident when I’m with other people. It’s the shift from a goal of writing 500 words a day, to BEING a prolific writer. This is a shift from external focus the do-goal to an internal focus the be-feeling.
“Success, however you define it, is achievable if you collect the right field-tested beliefs and habits.” - Tim Ferris in Tools of Titans.