Hack Your Habits: Make Change Happen One Behavior at a Time

Do you know what you need to do to help yourself feel better in your body and enjoy life more, but struggle to get yourself to do it?  It's not you that's the problem - it's the way you're going about it.

Let's get real about behavior change.

Have you ever read a book and been like, “oh my gosh!!!  This explains why I have been doing things this way all of my life?” James Clear's book Atomic Habits: Tiny Charges, Remarkable Results was like that for me.  Somehow, I have what seems like an innate ability to change my behavior.  All these years I thought it was discipline.  It turns out, I just happened to be doing what Clear identifies as the Four Laws of Behavior Change.  Between that and a clear focus on who and how I want to be in the world and what I needed to do to be that way, I have been able to get myself to engage in a number of healthy habits.  Now I actually know why and am excited to share that with you.

In his book Atomic Habits:  Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results, James Clear breaks down the Four Laws of Behavior Change to help us shift our behavior so we can meet our goals.  An important first step is identifying who and how we want to be in the world first and selecting habits that will help us be that way.

How to Hack Your Habits.

All habits go through the same four stages in this order - cue, craving, response, and reward.  In order to change our behavior, we need to work with this pattern that occurs with every habit. 

Behind every behavior is a cue to trigger that behavior.

Clear states:  "If you want to make a habit a big part of your life, make the cue a big part of your environment."

What does that mean?

You need to trigger the behavior you desire with a cue that is obvious, one that there is no way you could ignore it or forget.

What does this look like in practice?

If you want to remember to exercise in the morning, have your gym shoes ready to go by the door and clothes laid out in your room.

If you want to eat more vegetables, move them closer to the front of the fridge.

If you want to keep a gratitude journal daily, put the journal on your pillow in the morning and on your nightstand while you sleep (just make sure to get it back on your pillow when you wake up).

Now it’s your turn.

What habit have you been trying to get yourself to do that you know would be good for you, but just can't get yourself to do it?

What can you do to trigger that behavior?  How can you make it obvious?

Now that you have made your new habit or behavior obvious, the next step is to crave it.

Clear states:  "We need to make our habits attractive because it is the expectation of a rewarding experience that motivates us to act in the first place."

What does that mean?

You need to increase your motivation for doing your new habit or behavior by making it attractive.  

What does this look like in practice?

One way to do this is to couple the action that you want to do with a behavior that you need to do.

A friend of mine in high school did this.  She wanted to watch movies and she needed to exercise on the treadmill.  So she would watch a movie only while she was on the treadmill, saving the rest of the movie for the next time she exercised.  Not surprisingly, it totally worked! 

Now it's your turn.

Take your habit that you have already made obvious.  Now, what can you do to crave that behavior?  How can you make it attractive?

Now that you have made your new habit or behavior obvious and created motivation to do it by making attractive, you need to make sure you follow through with the behavior by making it easy.

James Clear states:  "One of the most effective ways to reduce friction associated with your habits is to practice environment design."

What does that mean?

You need to decrease obstacles to doing your new behavior or habit.  This may mean choosing a place to engage in your habit that is already aligned with your daily routine or that naturally flows with your life as it is.  

What does this look like in practice?

You can prime your environment to make your new habit easy.

If you want to practice yoga, set out your yoga clothes, yoga mat, and other props ahead of time.

If you want to eat healthier, home-made food instead of eating out, do meal prep on your weekends, separating portions out into meal-sized contains that you can grab at meal time.

If you want to write every morning, put your journal and pen on your desk within easy reach.

Now it's your turn.

Take your habit that you have already made obvious and attractive.  Now, what can you do to ensure you respond by doing your new habit?  How can you reduce friction and make it easy?

Now that you have made your new habit or behavior obvious, created motivation to do it by making attractive, have cleared the obstacles so your desired response (behavior) is easy, you need to make the behavior satisfying by creating some type of reward for the new behavior.

Our brains are primed to engage in behaviors that offer an immediate reward.  This is why it can be hard to engage in those positive new habits that you know are good for you in the long run.  That is, there isn't an immediate reward but a delayed one, making it less likely that your brain will naturally seek out that behavior.  That's why we need to create rewards that are more immediate.

James Clear states:  "In the beginning [with a new behavior or habit], you need a reason to stay on track.  This is why immediate rewards are essential.  They keep you excited while the delayed rewards accumulate in the background."

What does that mean?

You need to create immediate rewards for your new habits, particularly those habits whose result is delayed, so that the new habit is immediately satisfying.

An effective way to do this is using reinforcement.  

What does this look like in practice?

Let's say you are trying to save money to go on a trip.  Every time you pass on spending money (e.g., buying fancy coffee, buying more clothes when you have plenty, eating out), put that amount in your "Travel Fund".

Recently, I have been working on ending therapy sessions on time.  While I know that in the long term, this will be better for me and for my clients both in how it models healthy boundaries and how it creates space for me to go for a short walk between clients (self-care leading me to feel better and be more present with my next client).  However, there is a delayed response in that reward; I will need to be doing it for a while before I experience the reward.

Thus, to reinforce this behavior I have started giving myself a glittery star sticker every time I end a client session on time.  It's amazing how satisfying that glittery star sticker is and how much it reinforces my new behavior.

Whatever you choose, make sure the short-term reward reinforces your identify (e.g., if you are trying to lose weight, choose something other than sweets for a reward).

Now it's your turn.

Take your new habit that you have already made obvious, attractive, and easy.  Now, how can you reinforce your behavior to ensure you stay on track?  How can you make your new behavior satisfying?

While there are additional strategies to help you hack your habits, I believe Clear’s method breaks it down in a accessible way that you can start doing now.  So the only question is, what will you do now that you know you have a strong method to do it?


Stay tuned for a LIVE interview with David Pineda of DP Productions on Saturday, March 20, 2021 at 7:00 p.m. CST.

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