Picture: the habit loop - understand this and shape your habits!
(Adapted from the book: The Brave Athlete by Simon Marshall and Lesley Patterson)
Before starting this article I internet searched the term: “planning a good habit”. Usually, such searches are helpful, but not this time. Thank goodness for authors Marshall and Patterson! - Their book “The Brave Athlete” has the topic nailed...
(Disclaimer: While thoroughly recommending the book for improving your habits and reaching your goals I don’t agree with the book's use of swearing - specifically the use of the “F-bomb” – call me old fashioned if you will)....The great thing about a habit is that you don’t have to decide to do it or not do it, it happens automatically. Very little effort or will power is needed, it just happens because it is a habit.
For the [habit or] routine to become automatic, you need to design it with such conscious and deliberate precision that it’s ready-made to run on autopilot. Here are the step-by-step instructions...
How to build a lifechanging habitStep 1: Understand that habits have triggers, rituals, and rewards
Step 2: Plan a watertight ritual
Step 3: Setup a reward that works for you
Step 4: Identify or create a trigger that will trigger your good habit
Step 5: Draw a diagram of your plan, and share it with a friend or coach
Step 1: Understand that habits have triggers, rituals, and rewardsAll habits follow very predictable and logical patterns. They are composed of a “neurological loop”. The loop consists of three important components:
- The trigger
- The ritual
- The reward
The event that cues the brain to start the habit, like your alarm clock going off if you need to get out of bed early. If you want to start a new behaviour, you have to choose the trigger for that behaviour. As an example:
“A former research collaborator of mine at Stanford University, tiny habit guru Dr. B. J. Fogg, trained himself to do 10 push-ups every time he flushed the lavatory. He developed great upper body strength using this simple trick. That’s a genius use of triggers. When you think of the behaviours you want to trigger, try to be as specific as possible. For example, instead of just saying, “Do more training,” you might say, (as per the example of Dr. Fogg, do 10 pushups”The ritual...
The actual behaviour that you want to start, which includes the timing and the step-by-step instructions for how it occurs. For example with home exercises, you should make a list of what you want to do and you need to know how to do the exercises.
The feeling you get while doing your exercise habit/ritual or after you’ve finished. For new behaviours that aren’t immediately pleasurable, you might need to pair a separate reward like a cup of coffee or a lunch with friends after it.
Step 2: Plan a watertight ritualThe ritual is the sequence of behavioural steps you need in order to actually create a habit. For example, if you want to do some Pilates and stretches three mornings a week before work, you might plan the routine as follows:
- Line up a chair and exercise mat while the kettle is boiling
- stick a list of homework exercises to the back of the cupboard door where you keep your tea and coffee.
- Put the tea in the pot and leave it to brew
- Put on pleasant music or a favourite radio program to help the feel good brain chemicals.
- Do the Pilates and stretches and tennis ball massage work
- Fetch your newspaper and sit down to a cup of tea for your reward.
Step 3: Setup a reward that works for youThe reward is the driving force that keeps the habit going until it becomes automatic. There are brain chemicals and hormones associated with reward:
Dopamine: immediately increases feelings of pleasure, is short-lived and sometimes not very reliable for building a long-term habit. Listening to an audiobook or a favourite piece of music when you are performing your exercise ritual could be the reward to turn it into a habit.
Serotonin: happiness contentedness, significance, importance. Telling yourself what the new habit is going to do for you will likely trigger serotonin. Ask yourself, what will this do for me?” – The answer could be: “to help me enjoy tennis again”, or “to help me play with the grandchildren”. The feel-good factor is driven by your Serotonin.
Drinking a Barista made coffee while writing up your exercise training log (in which your good habit is recorded) is a good trick that gives you a Dopamine reward from the coffee AND a Serotonin reward from writing up your achievement!Endorphins: (reduce stress and alleviates pain) Sometimes an exercise ritual can be uncomfortable or painful to start with. Getting big muscles to move helps. Endorphins decrease the feeling of pain and endorphins work best when you don’t feel anxious about pain. Counselling from a Physio or Pilates instructor can bring you up to speed about good pain (that helps you heal or become stronger) and bad pain (that prevents you doing something that causes damage).
Oxytocin: (which increases a sense of trust and intimacy). You could make this brain chemical work for you by having a friend join you for the exercise, or going out for a cup of coffee or lunch with your friends after a Pilates class. Or booking a therapeutic massage after an exercise session.
The bottom line is that the reward you create for your new habit must be meaningful for you —something that gives you pleasure or happiness and that will re-enforce the habit and put it on autopilot. It could be the feel-good factor from setting aside $1 for every mile you run to a fund that you can give to.
Avoid rewards that sabotage your new habit—like ordering a 1,000-calorie drink after burning 250 calories during your run. Good habits need good rewards.
Step 4: Identify or create a trigger that will trigger your good habit to automatically startOnce you’ve figured out the ritual and reward, the next step is to create a trigger for it. Remember, a trigger is the habit’s starting pistol.
For example, the act of brushing your teeth at night is triggered by feeling sleepy and deciding it’s time for bed.
If you’re starting a new habit you need to design your new triggers carefully. For morning exercises, you could put out a Pilates mat and an exercise list as a visual trigger before heading for bed. Maybe a note by the electric jug or a Post-it on the fridge will do the trick? Or set up a friend to send you a text:
have you done your 10 minutes?
A well-designed trigger needs to be specific and actionable at the exact time – if it’s vague or you can’t do it immediately it won’t work. The ritual that the trigger sets going must be specific and doable. For example,
do 7 chair squats while waiting for the kettle to boil. That’s doable for most people.
Habit stacking helpsHabit stacking is the process of adding a new habit on top of an existing one. Always flossing after you’ve cleaned your teeth is a habit stack.
Here are some examples of a few stacks:
- Do 10 push-ups before you shower
- Do 2 minutes of single legged heel raises while the kettle boils
- When you turn the volume down during the TV commercials, stretch and move for 2 minutes
- Do a 1-minute body relaxation exercise after parking your car but before you open the door
Step 5: Draw a diagram of your plan, and share it with a friend or coachNow that you have worked out your trigger, exercise ritual, and reward, put it into a habit “loop” diagram, like this:
And share it with a friend or coach!