When it comes to building new or changing habits, keeping it simple is the key to success.
Changing habits can be tough, whether you’re trying to break bad ones or establish new healthy habits into your routine it can be hard to fit it into our busy schedules. We all have a finite amount of decision making juice, meaning that at a certain point in our day we get tired of making decisions and revert to autopilot.
Depending on the stressors and influences at play, this often manifests into taking the easy option or a failure to execute on our daily tasks. Instead of trying to fit all of our perceived priorities into a given day, let’s look at how habits are formed, prioritising what’s important and how we can approach changing the right habits.
How are habits formed?
What gets rewarded, gets remembered.
Habits are formed from our action or response to an internal or external trigger. If we are exposed to a trigger repeatedly and the action is rewarded a habit will start to form. Initially a habit may take external stimulus in order for it to be completed but after a while it will become more intrinsically driven if it’s rewarded enough.
The Habit Loop
Whether you are changing habits, breaking habits or building new ones the smaller the loop, the better. Developing micro habits through small, purposeful actions will help reduce the overwhelm we experience and allows us to move from action to momentum as quick as possible.
The 1-3 Formula
If you are someone who struggles with overwhelm and taking action when it comes to changing habits, the 1-3 formula will help you gain the initiative towards your goals. Here’s how it works:
Step 1: Pick one goal, build it in the SMART format
Step 2: Pick three daily action points or “micro habits” that will get you there
By using a minimalist or reductionist approach this will force you to focus on what’s essential and increase your chances of success during times of high stress. Choosing micro habits allows us to pivot quickly as our decisions can sometimes be based on biases and heuristics that we only discover at a later date.
Changing habits becomes much easier when we don’t over commit on a new journey because it allows us to avoid the sunken cost fallacy by investing too much time into something that may not be working.
The Learning Journey
When we are new to a skill or habit, there are four unique stages we go through. The earlier you are in the journey, the smaller the habit must be to acquire it.
The first stage is understanding why we are doing the specific micro habit or task. Having context of why it’s important gives us the meaning behind our actions. This also allows us to prioritise what matters and what doesn’t in order to achieve our goal.
After gaining context of the micro habit we need to achieve competence and over time this task should become easier to complete with repetition and practise. We should be able to complete the task for short periods of time with prompting and may still be at the stage where extrinsic accountability is required.
After enough practise and repetition we should be developing our confidence towards building or changing habits. Ideally we should feel like we have momentum in the right direction but our repetitive actions have led to consistency. This is where a habit can start to feel more autonomous or intrinsically driven.
The ultimate test for any habit is the ability to execute it under pressure or stress. This is where we can complete the new habit autonomously, regardless of external pressures we have in our day. Consistency has usually developed into discipline at this stage and it is simply now a part of who we are.
Your Attention Span
In this article I spoke about breaking a bad habit towards social media. We’ve also touched on keeping micro habits as small as possible when building or changing habits. A way to work out how small your micro habits need to be is understanding what your attention span is.
In this age of constant connectedness we can work out our attention span by tracking how many times we pick our phones up to check them during the day. Work out your waking minutes in the day and divide that by the amount of times you check your phone.
This is how small your micro habit should be.
When it comes to changing habits, we need to focus on small interventions to gain momentum.
Quick Decision Making Framework
The OODA Loop is a military decision making framework. It is useful when changing habits as it allows you to make a quick assessment to know whether or not to maintain, improve or remove a specific task or habit. It’s also useful in times of stress when observe negative or bad habits.
We gather relevant data during the observe phase, simply sitting with a problem or habit helps us avoid the biases that may guide us to making the wrong decisions. Once we have enough data we can orientate on to the problem to conduct a simple casual analysis or asking five why’s to help you drill down to the root cause of an issue.
Why #1: Why can’t I regulate my hunger and cravings? Because I’m tired.
Why #2: Why am I so tired? Because I’m not sleeping.
Why #3: Why am I not sleeping? Because I stay up late watching Netflix.
Why #4: Why do I stay up late watching Netflix? Because it helps me switch off.
Why #5: Why do I struggle to switch off? I’m not active or stimulated enough during the day and have a poor night time routine with too much screen time…
Once we have reached the root cause of the problem or response we can then decide what we are going to do about it which moves us to the act phase. These OODA Loops should be short and sharp in order to for us to walk onto target quickly and effectively.
Create A Bridge
An easy way to establish new or change old habits is bridging. This allows us to reduce barriers to acquisition and the cognitive load or fatigue that can sometimes be associated with learning something new. Combining a new habit with an established one will use the principle of momentum to accelerate us through the learning journey.
Breaking Bad Habits
To assist our efforts, we need a simple structure to eliminate unproductive habits in order to make space for new ones.
Remove the trigger. If we have conducted our OODA Loop and causal analysis we should know what the trigger is for our bad habit. Removing the root source of the problematic habit is the quickest way to eliminate a bad habit.
Reduce the chance of the trigger occurring. If we cannot completely eliminate the trigger, reduce our exposure to it as much as possible.
Replace the response. If we cannot eliminate the trigger or it is simply a part of our life, replace your response with a different one. Using the if then, do this framework is effective when looking at changing habits.
Old response: I’m bored. Pick up the phone or go to the fridge.
New response: If I am bored. I will set a timer for ten minutes and wait. If the feeling is still there I will go for a walk.
If we cannot change the environment we must look to change our response to it. Depending on the amount of time the habit has been in play will dictate the effort you will need to break it. Each time the bad habit is triggered, it offers us a chance to pause and create space between the trigger and response. Over time this will hopefully increase.
Reward the positive change or response. Regardless of whether you remove, reduce or replace a bad habit be sure to reward the positive action to increase the chances of it happening again.
Automate, Optimise or Eliminate?
When we talk about cognitive load or decision fatigue, it usually comes from having to make too many complex decisions in any given day. When we are well rested and productive, decision making comes easily and naturally for us. But when we are tired or we are learning a new skill we can find it overwhelming to the point that we don’t take any action.
An easy way to combat this is finding tasks in your day that you can automate, optimise or eliminate. This can bring back valuable hours or decision making juice for the things that matter. Setting some areas of your life on autopilot when they don’t align to your goal is an easy way to help relieve the stress of everyday life.
Can you be trusted to do the job? If we have spent some time learning where we are on the journey we may also need to apply the right accountability levers or motivation methods to keep us on course. Using extrinsic levers early in our journey removes the decision making burden and using public forms of accountability like a coach or community also forces us to avoid partitioning our intent just in case we fail.
Create a Sense of Urgency
Our goals usually fall by the wayside as life gets in the way. If you’ve come this far and selected a goal that you want to achieve, create a sense of urgency to add importance to it. We can do this by choosing a short but reasonable timeframe in which to achieve our goal or by giving ourselves a stretch target that drives that sense of urgency and a bias towards action.
Outside of our quick decision making framework we need to keep track on our progress over the long term when we are changing habits. If we take time to review our efforts regularly it may highlight patterns or behaviours we miss in the heat of battle. We can achieve this by conducting a weekly After Action Review that covers:
- What I did well
- What I didn’t do well
- What can be improved
Doing this in the form of journalling is a great way to cement the learnings but give you something to come back to see your progress over time. This session will also give you a chance to set up the week ahead and prioritise your efforts. Remember to steer away from your negativity bias in these sessions as we naturally gravitate towards what we miss or don’t do well. From your observations pick one or two things to improve and no more, adjust your daily action points or micro habits if need be and refocus back onto execution.