Some people enthusiastically set goals for January 1st. Others avoid New Year’s resolutions like the plague. Regardless of which camp you fall into, cultural milestones like the dawn of a new year spur us to evaluate our lives and consider changes.
Perhaps this is especially true in 2021, when we’re all world-weary and desperate for a fresh start.
At the same time, the upheaval of the past year has underscored what’s most important to us. 2020 taught us what matters most, and what we’re willing to let slide.
That’s certainly the case for me. I find myself earnestly evaluating my priorities so I can make the most of my precious time going forward.
This mindset shift, combined with a sense of urgency, presents an important opportunity for healthy change.
Perhaps you’ve decided it’s finally time to tackle that bad habit or make the lifestyle modification you’ve been thinking about for years. Maybe you’d like to start meditating. Perhaps you’d like to make time for a new passion, or create a nurturing self-care routine.
Any life change requires a change in habits and routines. Change experts tell us that our quality of life is largely influenced by the quality of our habits. If we want to make a meaningful change in how we live, we must start by examining our habits.
That’s fine, you might be thinking, but where do I start? Whatever change you’d like to make, changing your environment is critical to making or breaking the habits that will bring this change about.
“First you make your habits, then your habits make you!”
– Lucas Remmerswaal
Habit change experts agree that there is a powerful sequence of events governing our behavior. B.J. Fogg (Founder and Director of the Stanford Behavior Design Lab), Charles Duhigg (author of The Power of Habit) and James Clear (author of Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones), all agree that habits adhere to a basic cycle.
The 3-part habit cycle
Clear describes the cycle this way: First there’s a reminder or cue, a trigger that initiates the behavior. This is followed by the routine, the behavior itself. Finally, there’s the reward, the benefit you gain from doing the behavior.
Whether we’re aware of it or not, all habits are initiated by a cue. Some trigger in our environment that puts the habit into action.
For example, certain sounds on our phone get us to perform a certain behavior (check our texts, etc.). This often occurs without us consciously thinking about it.
The “reward” is the end of the cycle – the benefit we ultimately seek. It might be getting the information you need or want from your text messages, or feeling and looking better as you lose weight.
Routines and rewards don’t happen without an effective trigger. If you want to change your behavior, you must change your environment to provide regular reminders so the new routine can take root.
What is your new habit “trigger”?
Clear states that “the key to choosing a successful cue is to pick a trigger that is very specific and immediately actionable.” For example, you could use a special ringtone on your phone to remind you to meditate or take a few deep breaths throughout the day. I often put my workout clothes at the foot of my bed, so I put them on right away in the morning. This initiates my “exercise routine”, and makes it much more likely that I’ll get to the gym.
Habit expert Gretchen Rubin advocates the idea of “pairing”, in which the cue for a new behavior is hitched to an existing behavior. For example, if you wish to journal on a regular basis, place the journal and a pen next to the coffee pot you automatically head to each morning.
If you wish to trade a bad habit for a better one, Duhigg recommends that you keep the cue of the old habit but find an improved way of getting the reward you seek.
For example, I had a bad habit of eating chips when watching TV every night. When I examined the reasons why I did this, I realized what I wanted most was to feel relaxed. Now, instead of eating snacks (which bring unwanted calories) I will often use a back massager while watching TV.
I use the same cue (TV) but altered the routine so that I get the same type of reward (relaxation) without the unwanted weight gain. (Ok, ok… Yes, I still sometimes give in to the siren call of potato chips. But hey – progress, not perfection, right?)
Whether you wish to make small or large changes, your environment is critical to your success.
“There’s just one way to radically change your behavior: radically change your environment.”
– Charles Duhigg
Take back control of your life
Be your own champion this year. First, identify the rewards you seek and the routines that will get you there. Then, take the time to identify effective habit cues, thoughtfully arranging your home so your environment encourages the changes you seek to make.
Now more than ever, I think it’s important for us to invest in quality daily routines. Putting healthy habits in place is not only within our control, but also affects the quality of our day-to-day life experience. Focusing on that which we can control provides a healthy distraction from a larger world view that lately stokes frustration, anxiety and fear.