The idea of researching about the power of habits was inspired by our friend and first-time client Alexa: she asked us if we can write a guideline about developing good habits and how to get rid of bad habits. Two days later I spotted on Instagram a perfect matching book: Atomic Habis, An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear. It does not surprise me that the fitness community seems to love the book: habits are a powerful self development tool and most strength trainees strive for improvement not only in the gym. While motivation comes and goes, habits are built to stay, which, in case of good habits, is desirable but may make reaching certain goals more difficult in case of bad habits.
Identity is powerful. Think about veganism, keto, Crossfitters, Paleo: they are all part of a community which shares common interests and believes. They identify themself, for example, by not eating nor consuming any animal product for ethical reason in case of the vegans. But identity can be something even more subtle: you may be the one who always eat sweets because its comforting you after a stressful day. Or you may be the one who puts weights on the barbell after a stressful day. Changing identity is something very profound and difficult. There are reasons why you developed some (bad or good) habits that led you to who you are now. That’s why setting goals (read Stefan’s article on the sense and non-sense of goals) most of the times is not the right choice: you are more focused on what you want to achieve and not on who you whish to become.
What is the difference? Let me explain it with an example: you are leaving from the office with your gym bag and someone asks you where you are going to and you answer “I have to train.” If you can identify with someone who enjoys training your answer would rather be “I am looking forward to my training session” or “I am going to the gym because I feel good afterwars”. Stop identifying yourself with the lazy girl who punishes herself with exercise and start thinking as being the fit chick enjoying moving badass weights. It may hurt changing identity because you may lose some of your “community” but in some cases it is definitely worth it!
“You may want better health, but if you continue to prioritize comfort over accomplishment, you’ll be drawn to relaxing rather than training. It’s hard to change your habits if you never change the underlying beliefs that led to your past behavior. You have a new goal and a new plan, but you haven’t changed who you are.”James Clear – Atomic Habits
How to develop good habits
Talking about going to the gym, most of the times when I am tired and stressed out after a long day running after students in the lab or writing new documents for the lectures, the last thing I want to do is going through a weight session. Nevertheless such a day is never a reason to skip training. My gym clothes are already in the backpack, the gym itself is on the way home, I do not want to break my strike of hitting four times training a week and there is no better way to leave everything behind than load a barbell with some heavy weights. I also do not have to think about my dinner as I have already meal-prepped everything on Monday and just have to put it in the microwave.
James Clear summarizes these tricks I was intuitively using with the four laws of behaviour change:
- Make it obvious: after work it’s gym time
- Make it attractive: I do not want to break the strike
- Make it easy: gym clothes in the rucksack, gym on the way home
- Make it satisfying: increasing the weight on the bar, feeling good after training
For me going to the gym is a well established habit and my cues may not work for everyone as they are very abstract. If I want to start a complete new habit, my approach is slightly different and I start really small. Let’s take the habit of writing for the blog. The first thing I do is defining the habit very precisely: not just “writing” but “writing for a blog article every day”.
To make it attractive I use a “habit app”: it’s called Habitica where you add all the habits that you would like to develop to your list. Every time you suceed at it, you click on it, get rewards (coins and loot) and your character levels up. If you like fantasy and oldschool rollplaying games, I definitely recomend it. I have a thief, which was one of my favourite characters in Dungeons and Dragons 😉 . Otherwise you could just have a nice calender where you add a sticker for every time you perform the habit. Or maybe you give 2€ in a jar and when the jar is full, you buy yourself something nice.
In order to make it easy, you have to start small and I am talking about REALLY small. In my case, it is just writing for 5 minutes every single day. Then I close the laptop and that’s it. Sounds silly but it works. The blog post you are reading was written using this technique and I did not increase the amount of time through the process. Do not rush things by increasing “intensity” too early: for example the amount of time you want to meditate daily: stick to 3 minutes daily for at least one month or two or leave it just like that. Or build a training program with our guidelines with just one set per exercise and do it in the gym twice a week. You will be finished after 25-30 minutes. Take a shower, go home, done. Or start tracking just one meal a day, give 1€ in your piggybank and buy two really nice bentobox/meal box for you at the end of the month.
This brings us to the last point: make it satisfaying. It’s one of the most difficult and on the same time most crucial parts. Actually, our brain craves for instant gratification. That’s why we cheat on chocolate, buy clothes, spend time on Instagram and so on. For the sake of making a habit satisfying I often use a combination of a short term and a long term gratification. In the case of training it’s taking a warm shower with my favourite shower gel and using a luxurious body cream afterwards. My long term goal is getting a muscular body and becoming stronger. In the case of daily writing is getting a nice cup of cinnamon Yogi tea afterwards and the perspective of finishing the article which keeps me going. If you want to introduce the habit of cooking your own meals, you could reward yourself by watching one episode of your favourite series afterwards for example and the long term goal would be achieving your fitness goals.
One last consideration: do not start too many new good habits at once even if you are now superexcited and motivated. You will not be able to stay consistent and will get frustrated soon. Make priorities, start one or two new good habits which are important to you and add additioal ones when the habits are truely established. It may take months or even years where you are working only on one or two habits but small consistent changes can make the difference.
how to get rid of bad habits
James Clear associates behavior change with one big skill which is awareness. Awareness is currently a fancy word which many of us associate with some Insta-beautys meditating in their skinny, colorful pants and sipping green smoothies afterwards. But awareness is not that fancy. It is simple: be f*cking focused. What are you doing? Why are you doing it?
…recognize your habits and acknowledge the cues that trigger them, which makes it possible to respond in a way that benefits you.James Clear – Atomic Habits
Let us take one very common example. You are writing something not so exciting like the introduction of your thesis or a report from an analysis. You are not truely hungry but you start mindlessly snacking the chocolate or the chips from your drawer. Now you should take a step back and analyze this behavior if you want to get rid of it. Why are you snacking? Are you just bored? Or maybe you are truely hungry? If you are bored, your mind seaks for instant gratification and a high palatable snack is one. Why not standing up, go to the kitchen and make a nice tea or coffee? Or maybe just take a real break, write a message to a beloved one or listen to one song you really like. Are you truly hungry because you forgot eating while working? Then do not even buy high palatable snacks and replace them with healthy food that does not need any prep, tomatoes and berrys being my favorite ones. If you have a fridge store, add some Skyr or greek yoghurt and you have a super quick meal. Which brings us to the reverse four laws of behavior change:
- Make it invisible: you will keep grabbing snack if you have them on your desk
- Make it unattractive…or make a better option more attractive: like scheduling coffee brakes by using the Pomodoro technique, having plenty of your favourite tea to brew and so on.
- Make it difficult: do not even buy the snacks. Or if you crave nuts like Stefan, buy the ones with the shell. You will only eat them when you are really hungry.
- Make it unsatisfying…or make a better option more satisfying: like switiching snacking for chatting with your friend and feeling proud to not have stuffed yourself with some random food.
James Clear also shows some options like making a contract that if you do not stick to your habit e.g. you have to pay a night out to all your friends. It may work very well but I am not a huge fan of negative reinforcement. In my opinion, falling off the wagon once, should not be related to punishment. This is why I am rather for the “never two times rules” if you go off track, you do it once but on the next day life goes on as usual and you re-start your good habit. Some exaples: if you indulge yourself with a luxurious tea time with brownies, scones and clotted cream, next day you go back to your usual healthy meals. If you do not meditate one day, you’ll do again the next one. It’s also about getting rid of the “all or nothing mindset”: if your mobile phone falls and get a scrap, you do not go ahead and destroy your mobile phone completely. If you eat one piece of chocolate which is outside of your macro-target, why eat the whole bar? The 100kcal do not matter, the +600 will matter if you do it on a regular basis.
Why was it worth spending so many words on habits? Well, first because it was a wish of one of our first time readers, clients and friends, Alexa. And as I already mentioned in my intro, habits are powerful because they all serve you in some way—even the bad ones—which is why you repeat them. Take your time to analyze them and find out what is the net outcome. Does I profit from them in a long term? Then go on practicing them. Do they harm me? Well, maybe it is time to change something.
Establishing habits is already a big challenge but to fully profit from their benefits you have to master them: you need a combination of automatic habit and deliberate practice. Go to the gym and keep trainng. Make a cup of tea and continue writing at your blog/book/article every single day. Go to the supermarket, buy the veggies and keep skipping the junk food section.
There is something like a “willpower” gene, some people have more, some people have less. Some people are more predisposed to overeat and some are not. Education and the habits of the faimily you grow up with also play a big role. Nevertheless Gabor Mate notes, “Genes can predispose, but they don’t predetermine.” Even if you grow up in a family where cooking was not a habit and everyone in your family is chubby, you can still do something against it if you want.
Embrace habits. Enjoy life more.
Each chunk of information that is memorized opens up the mental space for more effortful thinking. This is true for any endeavor. When you know the simple movements so well that you can perform them without thinking, you are free to pay attention to more advanced details.James Clear – Atomic Habits