With more than half of the world currently in some form of lockdown, many of us now have more free time. It is tough to not be able to live our lives how we usually do. I especially miss being able to see family and friends and play sport with others.
Seeing that change is inevitable right now, maybe we can use this time as an opportunity to establish healthy habits. What if we could get started on something we have always wanted to do, or stop doing something that we know is bad for us.
The author James Clear nicely summarises how to build healthy habits in his excellent book ‘Atomic Habits’:
The First Law: Make it Obvious.
- Fill out a habits scorecard. Write down your current practices to become aware of them.
- Use implementation intentions: “I will (BEHAVIOUR) at (TIME) in (LOCATION).”
- Use habit stacking: “After (CURRENT HABIT), I will (NEW HABIT).”
- Design your environment. Make the cues of good habits evident and visible.
If your plan is not apparent enough, write down what you will do at what time on what days in what specific location and how long you will do it for each time. You can build this practice on top of an already established habit. It might be after you brush your teeth, or as soon as you get out of bed, or before you eat breakfast or as soon as you get home from work. It just needs to be after something that you are already doing every day so that you can practice your new habit just after this every time.
Also, make sure that you have a reminder to do this task at this time each day, especially in the beginning, so that it will be evident that you need to do it. You may need to set an ongoing event in your calendar for a specific time every day. Or you could set a reminder in an app if you want to use one to help you build this habit. It will not guarantee that you will practice the behaviour, but you will not be able to say that you “just forgot” either.
The Second Law: Make it Attractive.
- Use temptation bundling. Pair an action you want to do with an activity you need to do.
- Join a culture where your desired behaviour is normal.
- Create a motivation ritual. Do something you enjoy immediately after challenging tasks.
If your plan is not attractive enough, determine if you can do something enjoyable at the same time as the activity you want to do. It might be listening to an audiobook or podcast series, but only while you go for your daily morning run. You could also join a running group that meets every morning, and it will encourage you to begin running daily too. You could then take a warm shower or eat a tasty breakfast to increase the pay-off for successfully engaging in the new habit that you are trying to develop.
The Third Law: Make it Easy.
- Reduce friction. Decrease the number of steps between you and good habits.
- Prime the environment. Prepare your situation to make future actions easier.
- Master the decisive moment. Optimise the small choices that deliver outsized impact.
- Use the two-minute rule: Downscale your habits until you can do them in two minutes or less.
- Automate your habits. Invest in technology and one-time purchases that lock in future behaviour.
If your plan is too difficult, reduce how many steps you need to take to engage in the new habit that you want to build. Let us say you want to go to the gym after work, put your gym shoes and clothes in the car, and maybe even change into them at work before you leave. Then all you have to do is go in on the way home and begin your workout. If you are choosing between the cheap gyms ten blocks away or the slightly more expensive one on your street, choose the one on your street. You are much more likely to go. Also, if you do not feel up to it, tell yourself that you will only go for ten minutes, and if you are still not feeling it, you can go home. Chances are, you will be doing well once you have started, and want to keep going. Lastly, commit to a monthly contract if you can rather than just paying each time. You will then be more motivated to go more as it becomes better value the more times you go.
The Fourth Law: Make it Satisfying.
- Use reinforcement. Give yourself an immediate reward when you complete your habit.
- Make “doing nothing” enjoyable. When avoiding a bad habit, design a way to see the benefits.
- Use a habit tracker. Keep track of your habit streak and “don’t break the chain.”
- Never miss twice. When you forget to engage in a habit, make sure you get back on track immediately.
If your plan is not satisfying enough, reward yourself as soon as you complete the habit, especially until you get into a groove with your practice. Remind yourself of the benefits of what you are doing and the negatives associated with not practising this habit. Keep track of how many times you do it, and see if you can do it every day to build up a streak. Try not to break the streak and never let yourself miss more than one day in a row, as the more days you lose, the harder it is to get back on track.
How to Break Unhealthy Habits
James Clear again provides an excellent summary in ‘Atomic Habits’ on what steps to take:
Inversion of the First Law: Make it Invisible
- Reduce exposure. Remove the cues of your bad habits from your environment.
If reminders for the thing you are trying to stop doing are around everywhere, try to make them less visible. If you want to drink less alcohol, throw out any drinks that you have in your house and any alcohol-related memorabilia too. If you are going to stop eating ice cream every time you watch TV, do not have any ice cream in the house and put the remotes away in a drawer or the bedroom too.
Inversion of the Second Law: Make it Unattractive
- Reframe your mindset. Highlight the benefits of avoiding your bad habits.
If the thing that you are trying to stop doing seems too attractive, make it less appealing. Write down the negatives of drinking or eating ice cream, and write down the benefits of not doing this. Then leave this written information somewhere that you will regularly see it. It may be on your desk, or near the mirror in your bedroom or bathroom.
Inversion of the Third Law: Make it Difficult
- Increase friction. Increase the number of steps between you and your bad habits.
- Use a commitment device. Restrict your future choices to ones that benefit you.
If the thing you want to stop doing is too easy to see, increase how many steps you need to take to engage in the behaviour. Let us say you usually buy alcohol or ice cream on the way home from work after a tough day. If you do not bring any money or credit cards to work with you, you will need to drive home first. Assuming you don’t have any alcohol or ice-cream at home, you will need to get your credit cards, then go to the bank, get out money and go to the store and buy these products. That is a lot of effort for someone who has had a tough day and wants to take it easy.
Inversion of the Fourth Law: Make it Unsatisfying
- Get an accountability partner. Ask someone to watch your behaviour.
- Create a habit contract. Make the costs of your bad habits public and painful.
If the thing you want to stop doing seems too satisfying, ask for help. It could be from your partner, family, or friends. Ask them to hold you accountable and help you avoid engaging in this habit. Tell people that you are not drinking or eating ice cream, and let them know of a painful consequence that you will have to do if you engage in this habit or they see you do it.
To download a printable version of the habits cheat sheet, go to http://www.atomichabits.com/cheatsheet.
If you do try to break a habit or build one, remember that behavioural change is hard. Don’t try to make too many changes all at once, and do try to be kind to yourself if you slip up. That’s a normal part of the change process. The key is to keep trying and get back on track after a bad day. I wish you all the best during this extremely difficult time, and I am happy to offer extra support to anyone who needs it.
About the Author
Dr Damon Ashworth Clinical Psychologist who completed his doctoral research on the effectiveness of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I); and is considered an expert in the field of sleep and insomnia. After 18 months volunteering as a mental health specialist in Vanuatu, he has returned to Melbourne and is now available for in person consultations and online via Telehealth . In addition to sleep problems Dr. Ashworth, also has an interest in treating depressed mood, anxiety, trauma, addiction and relationship issues.