Start a good habit. Break a bad one. What’s involved? If, for example, I want to stop wasting time in front of a screen (not that I need to or anything:), what should I do? What advice would you give me?
Most people lean toward motivation as a key strategy for making positive changes. While it’s important, it’s surprisingly not nearly as effective as we think. Using motivation to make unpleasant changes relies on willpower. Our willpower is a cognitive resource, like a muscle, and just as a muscle can be fatigued with constant use, so can our willpower. There are ways to build willpower and to maintain it more regularly, but I’m going to focus this blog instead on understanding the ingredients of habits and how small changes to these ingredients can yield large results.
Some researchers suggest that there are three steps involved in habit formation: (1) Triggers, (2) Routines, and (3) Rewards. However, I prefer James Clear’s four steps: (1) Cues, (2) Cravings, (3) Responses, and (4) Rewards. Also, I have personally found his simple methods for making small changes to these steps profoundly powerful.
Clear’s approach for starting a good habit essentially involves the following: (1) Make the cues obvious, (2) Make the cravings attractive, (3) Make the responses easy, and (4) Make the rewards satisfying. To break a bad habit, simply do the opposite: (1) Make the cues invisible, (2) Make the cravings unattractive, (3) Make the responses difficult, and (4) Make the rewards unsatisfying.
I’ll use my question at the start about me wasting less time in front of screens as an example of how I’ve put these strategies into practice. First, the cue or trigger is the sight of my laptop or phone or tv, and to make these cue less obvious, I’ve made it a habit to put them out of sight. For example, I’ve permanently moved my tv out of the living room and I’ve developed the habit of putting my phone and laptop away in a drawer in my bedroom when I’m not using them. It’s a surprisingly effective, yet simple strategy! Next, I’ve made the craving to veg out in front of a screen less attractive by reframing my perspective on it. Rather than viewing screen time as a way to relax, I’ve reconsidered it as mostly being a form of increasing my stress (which, if I’m being honest, is a fairly accurate reframe). The next strategy is my favorite for breaking this bad habit, make the response difficult. As I’m writing this blog, I’m in an AirBnb that has a large tempting tv right in front of me. Instead of watching it though (and likely feeling guilty about wasting time), I’m writing. The secret? When I arrived, I went through a bit of a hassle to move a fireplace so that I could unplug the back of the tv and then I took the remote’s batteries out and moved them to the kitchen. The total time was maybe two minutes of effort (which I did when my willpower was still high). To highlight how powerful this step feels for me, last night, after what I felt was a very productive day, I decided it would be a reward to watch a movie. When I thought about the work to get everything together again, I was happier though to just keep reading. Lastly, to make the reward of screen time unsatisfying, I’ve started tracking my daily screen time and if I exceed my limit, I have to give myself a big X on the tracking sheet and a lower score for my daily potential.
These examples just scratch the surface of ways to break bad habits and start good ones. Although part of me wants to keep writing so that you have all of this information, another bad habit I’m breaking is perfectionism so I’ll stop here with my imperfect blog!