The habit building framework
How to effectively build and sustain habits in your life?
New years resolutions. When was the last time you made a new years resolution and actually stuck to it? I have to be honest in saying that I have never done so.
Let me set the scene. You have motivation to go to the gym and pack on some muscle or lose some weight. You sign up for a gym membership and you start going on a week to week basis. A month or two months go by and then you are still going. You think this is going well. Winter hits and then you decide that hey, it’s kind of cold so I’m going to stay in bed today. You still go every other day but then this slowly trickles down and before you even realise it, you’ve stopped going (but you still pay your membership fee to the gym).
This is how gyms get you. They understand that habit building is hard and they use that to their advantage by signing up more members than they are capable of taking and then betting (correctly) that not everyone is going to turn up.
If you have been following my writing, you know that I’ve mentioned before that we humans are easily manipulated. This is another great example of how smart people take advantage of this. It’s why gyms are so successful at making money (not all of them, but the business model works).
“Well, Thomas, what can i do about this?”, you may ask. Let’s get that determined look on your face again and let’s take back control of your life.
I personally think building habits requires a multi-faceted approach and not just one technique. It’s not easy, because if it were, then gyms would have failed by now.
So here goes…
I see habit building as a three layered pyramid. If you can get all of these three layers one on top of each other, then you are on the road to building successful habits that will not only be built but will last.
First, I want to go through the basis of habit building that you may already know as it very well popularised. Let’s do a little bit of a refresher at step 1
Step 1 — the top layer of the pyramid
Habit building advice usually requires you to start a habit by taking tiny steps, so as an example, instead of exercising for 1 hour straight, we start by walking for 10 minutes and then we slowly build that up to reach our 1 hour straight goal. The idea here is that when it is easy, we are more likely do it. If it were hard, we will most likely be put off by it after a while. It’s good building block advice and it does kick start your journey on building a habit.
Another good piece of advice that I have read is designing a cue for it. So, for example, if you go for a walk after you put the rubbish out every time, you have designed a time cue and you have that habit wired into your brain. I like this piece of advice too as I do find this works.
Step 1 is the top layer of the pyramid and is required for building a habit.
Step 2 — the middle layer of the pyramid
Starting a habit I think is the easy bit. Sustaining a habit is the harder bit. How do we sustain a habit so that we continue to do it for the indefinite future? Well, looking at my own addictions in the past, I realise that there is a certain narrative I tell myself either to justify my inaction or action.
This narrative is a way we confirm to ourselves what we want to believe with a story on why we do what we do. For example, when I buy crisps, I justify it by saying that it’s a healthy version of crisps and that eating it is not a problem as it’s delicious and it makes me happy. If I were to listen to myself, I would continue to eat the crisps. It’s the cognitive bias at play here, that I will find information to confirm what I believe.
However, cognitive biases are a double edged sword. We can use that same cognitive bias to our advantage to break our habits by having a similar narrative for why we aren’t doing what we are doing. For example, in my real life scenario on crisps, it is about forming a narrative on why I should not buy crisps. I justify that by saying to myself that the crisps are expensive and that they are selling me some junk useless unhealthy food as if it’s healthy.
The example I’ve provided is an example of how I’ve been able to change the narrative. Each person is different though, so you need to know what appeals to you and will compel you to stop doing what you were otherwise doing before.
Step 3 — the bottom layer of the pyramid
If you are able to do step 2, you are probably on your way to maintaining a good habit. To really cement the foundation necessary to sustain the habit, I believe that you need to have justify your new narrative with research and a deep understanding as well as regular reminders.
Using the example with the crisps, I ended up going to the science to prove that yes, indeed these crisps are full of saturated fats and are empty carbohydrates. They serve no purpose. On why it’s expensive, I compared it to what else I was buying i.e. cut sweet potatoes and squash costs £1.50 to buy yet a packet of crisps that I can consume in one sitting costs £1.50 as well. Understanding this helped me to understand my new narrative in a deeper way, which helped me to override the previous narrative in my head and to solidify the habit for a much longer period of time.
I now remind myself of this on the regular so that I can continue to do the habit that I have built.
Combining steps 1, 2 and 3 allows me to build the great pyramid of habits, a foundation that at least from history, tells me will last many many years to come.