The Basics of Habit Change

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Habit research is super popular right now. There’s never been a better time to learn just what makes our habits tick, exactly how to break or change a habit we don’t like, and the steps or rules to follow to build and strengthen habits we like.

Definition of a Habit

A habit is “a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.” They’re ingrained neural pathways for routines we’ve practiced over and over again until they become unconscious or second nature.

Habits are good, “bad,” or neutral, depending on how the habit affects your life.

Neutral habits are just that—neutral. Things like driving the same route to and from work every day, eating the same thing for breakfast, and always taking your coffee a certain way all count as neutral habits. They don’t really serve or not serve you, they just are.

A good habit serves you. It makes your life easier, less stressful, and helps you achieve your goals and dreams. Daily exercise, eating healthfully, and getting enough sleep are all good habits.

Bad habits don’t serve you. They’re things you want to stop doing because they disrupt your (or someone else’s) life, make you sick(er), or fill your life with negativity. See this post for more about bad habits.

The Habit Loop

Charles Duhigg defines a habit as a habit loop: cue, routine, reward. James Clear defines it similarly as a cue, craving, response, and reward. Regardless of which definition you like better, they both start and end with a cue and a reward.

A cue can be anything. It can be the time of day, a smell, your stomach rumbling, an infinitesimal itch, an alarm going off… You name it, it can be a cue.

The definition of a habit reward differs from what we usually think about when we hear that word. “Rewards” for habits are less like getting a manicure and more like this:

Cue: alarm goes off

Routine: wake up and shower

Reward: body is now clean and awake

Habit rewards are more ordinary than things we treat ourselves with or award ourselves for a job well done.

Replacing vs. Quitting

The problem with habit change is that one can never truly “quit” a habit. Because those neural pathways exist, you can’t really get rid of them. When you experience a cue, the craving still exists.

What you can do is replace the response and reward with a “good” habit.

So instead of reaching for a cookie when you’re feeling hungry, reach for a water bottle. (Often, feelings of hunger are really feelings of thirst—just confused.) Simple substitutions work for some habits, but others require more finesse.

Self-Knowledge & Willingness

It’s important to know yourself and your willingness to change bad habits or habits that don’t serve you, or modify your good habits into even better habits.

If you’re not the kind of person who’s willing to put in the hard work and effort to change your habits—especially the bad habits that shackle you to things you don’t like—then you’re not going to change your habits.

But if you’re the kind of person who wants to become a better version of yourself, understanding the little nuances of your personality will help you tremendously on your journey to habit change.

How to Change Your Habits

Now let’s get into the good stuff. How do you actually go about changing your habits?

Identify the Habit You Want to Change

This could be “quitting” a bad habit or starting a habit that you “have always wanted to do” but never seem to start for one reason or another. For simplicity’s sake, start by working on one habit at a time. B. J. Fogg has a method called “habit stacking” in his Tiny Habits methodology that builds habits on top of each other, but the smaller you start out with, the easier it’ll be to keep going.

You don’t want to try changing five major bad habits all at once, or you’ll feel overwhelmed and likely end up abandoning the project.

(And your bad habits will remain.)

So, pick something small and only pick one to three habits to change at a time.

Know Your Tendency

Gretchen Rubin developed a personality framework she calls The Four Tendencies, based on how a person responds to inner and outer expectations. The tendencies are:

  • Obliger (largest group) meets outer but resists inner
  • Questioner (second-largest group) meets inner but resists outer
  • Upholder (second-smallest group) meets both inner and outer
  • Rebel (smallest group) resists both inner and outer

No tendency is better or worse than another. For each group, there are methods to assist with problem areas. For example, obligers need outer accountability to meet inner expectations, so it’s just a question of setting up that outer accountability.

Tips for the Tendencies

Knowing your tendency makes your approach to habit change a lot easier. If you’re a rebel (you don’t meet inner or outer expectations—you do what you want to do, not what others expect of you or what you expect of yourself) then you’d frame a habit change as “this thing doesn’t control me—I’m not beholden to this habit!” or something like that.

For questioners, it needs to make sense. Questioners internalize all expectations once they make sense. To change their eating protocol (or “diet”) a questioner needs to understand and answer all the questions about why a particular way of eating is better than another.

Upholders meet inner and outer expectations alike, so theoretically, habit change should be “easy” for upholders… But that’s not always the case. For upholders, one thing to watch out for is adopting a habit because it’s an outer expectation, regardless if they truly want to foster that habit.

Obligers, as mentioned earlier, need outer accountability to achieve inner expectations—including habits.

Gretchen talks more about the tendencies in her book The Four Tendencies, and you can read about Gretchen’s 21 strategies of habit change in her book Better Than Before. I’ve read both and can attest to how good they are!

(And in case you’re wondering, I’m an Upholder.)

James Clear’s Method

In his book Atomic Habits, James distills over six years of habit research into four rules to make or break habits.

The Rules:

  1. Make it it obvious (or invisible)
  2. Make it attractive (or unattractive)
  3. Make it easy (or difficult)
  4. Make it satisfying (or unsatisfying)

This breakdown makes it easy to see how to make or break a habit. Habits need all four rules to exist, and can often take all four opposite rules to break.

I really like this framework. It makes it easy to identify when you’re making something easy or hard, obvious or invisible, etc. James gives many examples for each of these pairs.

  • To encourage learning how to play the guitar, keep the guitar in a high-traffic, easily accessible place (making it obvious).
  • To discourage playing console video games, unhook the console and unplug the TV after each session (make it difficult).
  • Want to eat more apples? Don’t put them in the crisper drawer in the fridge—keep them in a bowl on the table or counter (make it obvious).

James encourages his readers to think about how each habit makes you feel. Is it satisfying to continue with that bad habit? How can you make it unsatisfying? Does this habit represent who you want to be?

(That’s a way of making it unsatisfying—if it doesn’t represent who you are, why should you continue doing it?)

Don’t Break the Chain

Jerry Seinfeld famously told an up-and-coming comedian that his secret to comedic success was writing a joke every single day and marking it off on a wall calendar with a big red X.

Before long, the chain of X’s becomes long enough that the goal becomes not breaking the chain. This is a trick to habit-building that invokes the psychological draw toward consistency.

James Clear makes the note that if you do miss a day (breaking the chain), whatever you do, don’t miss more than one day at a time.

This trick doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s a good place to start if you’re starting from nothing and just want to try it out.

Just be sure to make your calendar highly visible! It won’t do to have your chain of X’s somewhere you won’t see it every day.

habit-change-pin-post-resized

Appeal to Your Future Self

This is a good method for Obligers. Your future self is a form of outer accountability—you’re not doing something for current you, you’re doing it for future you—the person who benefits most from any bad habit you break or good habit you build.

I use this method a lot, even though I’m an Upholder. I find it useful to imagine my future self reaping the benefits of changes I made when I was younger (i.e. current me). If future me is healthy, fit, and regularly exercises, then current me must build the habits that create that future for myself.

If future me is successful in whatever ways I define now, then it’s up to current me to take the steps necessary to actually be successful.

Consider it an Experiment

It’s also useful to think about the habits you’re making or breaking as experiments. If it doesn’t work out, no harm! You just learned what doesn’t work, and can move on to the next experiment. My Couch-to-5K running endeavor in April and May 2019 was more of an experiment than anything else. For the program’s duration, I built a habit to run three times a week, regardless of weather or my location (I still ran on business trips). But after the race, that habit petered out.

The habit experiment failed even though the “running a 5K race” goal succeeded. (I won 3rd in my age group.)

Baby Steps

Again, don’t try too much at once. Build off successes by starting small and progressively moving through the habits you want to build, break, or change. It’s a marathon, not a sprint!

The smaller the habit, the easier it is to stick with and continue building from.

Self-Forgiveness

Lastly, when you miss a day (because it will happen) don’t beat yourself up. Take a deep breath and remember that missing one day doesn’t make you a failure. It doesn’t mean you’re “not cut out for this.” It just means you’re human, like everyone else, and tomorrow you’ll try again.

Learning self-forgiveness is probably the hardest part about habit building and breaking. When we see each failure to keep the habit as a failure of character or will in ourselves, we’re not doing ourselves any favors.

Taking emotional attachment out of the habit equation helps us keep our focus on what truly matters—we are becoming the kind of people who keep going even if we stumble every now and then.

Recommended Reading

I voraciously consume books, and I especially like these:

What Habits Do You Want to Change?

What bad habits feel like they’re consuming your life? Which good habits do you want to start, but haven’t gotten around to? What do you already do that you want to strengthen or improve? Leave a comment!

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