Automating Life Change
Adopting a new habit is a skill. To make the process easier: 1) make the habit easy to do, 2) have a prompt or cue, and 3) make sure the new habit is meaningful to you. As with learning anything new, setbacks and mistakes happen, and sometimes we may need to reevaluate the habit we’ve chosen, or troubleshoot and try again.
How come changing a habit – creating a new one or kicking an old one – is so hard to do? We know exercise can help us feel better and improve longevity. We know that as we age, it’s even more important to exercise as it helps prevent muscle mass loss and keeps us independent. Moving daily can be likened to brushing our teeth twice a day, it’s something we should all be doing.
But how come many of us are not? When surveyed about their New Year’s resolutions, Americans cite “exercising more” and “eating healthier” as common goals. Yet, by February, three out of four Americans have dropped their resolutions and by the end of the year, only 8% have fulfilled them (1).
Two important factors influencing our activity levels as adults are our childhood experiences and environment. Genes can play a role as well, but that’s a rabbit hole we’ll leave for another day. We are more likely to be physically active as adults if our parents were physically active and encouraged us to exercise when we were growing up (2). But even if we had our genes and upbringing working in our favor, it can still be challenging to get out of bed in the morning and go exercise.
Human evolutionary biologist and Harvard professor Daniel Lieberman notes how although we evolved to be physically active, “exercise is a special kind of physical activity” (3). Our hunter and gatherer ancestors exercised in order to eat and survive. In modern society, exercise has become a voluntary activity. Lieberman concludes, “all in all, humans have these deep-rooted instincts to avoid unnecessary physical activity, because until recently it was beneficial to avoid it.”
So, if we feel like our bodies want us to linger in bed and skip our morning run, there’s some evolutionary grounding in that. That’s why setting up systems and processes to make it happen is so important. Once you know those principles, you can apply them to any new behavior change you’d like.
Now that we know how the odds may be stacked against us, let’s turn to the science of behavior change to help us become consistent exercisers. More than 82 behavior change models have been studied to try to get people to exercise more (4). For now, we’ll focus on the three key elements in turning a behavior into a habit: 1) motivation, 2) skill and ability, and 3) having a prompt or cue.
We’ll use two examples to illustrate how these elements come together to build a habit.
The first example we’ll use is developing the habit of going for a 20-minute walk or run once a day. This will help us develop a consistent exercise routine. For the second example, we’ll pick doing push-ups throughout the day as a way to help us develop upper body strength and increase our daily movement.
Let’s begin with key element number one: motivation. When we talk about motivation, it’s our “why.” We need to ask ourselves: Why do I want to create this new habit? Why is it important to me? How will doing this habit affect my life and the lives of those I care about?
When it comes to what motivates us, there are intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Intrinsic motivators are those reasons that come from within. Like, we want to be more active so we have the energy to do fun activities with the kids. Extrinsic motivators come from the outside: the people we’re surrounded by exerting an influence on us to change our behavior.
Take some time right now and ask yourself those questions. Come up with a list of your own intrinsic and extrinsic motivators, the more the better. Become emotionally invested in your reasons; the stronger our “why,” the more likely we are to keep going when faced with setbacks. And the more the motivation comes from within instead of expectations placed upon us, the more likely we are to follow through.
Now let’s move on to key element number two: skill and ability. This is where we get into the nuts and bolts of our new habit. Here’s where we assess if we have the capability and means to actually do this behavior. We ask ourselves: Do I know how to do this? Do I have the proper equipment? Where am I going to do this activity? Is this place accessible? Do I have the time? Can I do this?
This is where it helps to be honest. If we don’t know how to do something, our process will involve learning how to. As we review the list of equipment and gear needed, we continue to assess: Do I own these items? Do I know how to use the gear? Does the clothing fit properly? If we answer “no,” it’s time to do some research and take action to turn that answer into a “yes.”
Let’s review these questions with our first habit, the one about going for a daily 20-minute walk or run. Do we have the right shoes to wear? Do they fit properly? Do we have the right clothing: pants, shirt, hats, gloves? If we’re going to be running or walking while it’s dark outside, do we have a headlamp? What about our skill and ability? Are there any injuries preventing us from walking or running? Let’s not forget the “where” questions: Where do we want to run or walk? Do we have a route mapped out? Is it safe? Do we know how to get there?
We would do the same process for our second example of doing more push-ups throughout the day: Do I know how to do a push-up? Do I have any injuries that get in the way? A place to do them? What about the number of push-ups involved, how many do I want to do?
As we go through our checklist, we begin to assess whether this habit is the right habit for us at this time. If many of our answers were “nos,” we will need to address this, maybe break the habit down into smaller components. If there are too many obstacles or we have injuries to consider, we may need to pick a different habit to work on for the time being. Sometimes, the habit we want to adopt may not be the right one for us right now.
Next, we move on to key element number three: having a prompt or cue. Here is where we get to link our new behavior with a cue or prompt. These cues are like pressing the play button on a preprogrammed set of actions. Wiring that automatic program inside us requires repetitions of the “cue-response” cycle. Many cycles like these happen throughout the day, like sit-in-car, buckle-seat-belt. This routine requires minimum cognitive energy because it’s been habituated.
To generate new habits or modify old ones, we can rely on internal cues and external cues. Internal cues are self-generated, like a feeling, thought, or emotional state. External cues come from the outside. They are like psychological tags or anchors in our environment: the time of day, a reminder on our phone, or the moment we walk into the kitchen.
If you want to start a habit of going for a walk in the morning, as an example, you can arrange your home environment in a way where you can associate cues with the desired behavior. The night before, you can place your favorite walking clothes somewhere you will see them when you wake up. The cue will be seeing the clothes and the behavior will be to put them on because you’ve made that behavior easy, which is a key component when forming new habits.
Then you can start to “habit stack.” Putting clothes on is the next cue and the behavior is going outside. The next layer in the stack could be working on your motivation. Make a habit of tapping into your motivation for making that change in your life.
Before your walk, you’ll probably be going to the bathroom. So, let’s pretend that, in the first key element, you identified “being healthy and having the energy to play with our kids” as a strong motivator. Why not place a picture of your family on your bathroom mirror? As you stand by the sink brushing your teeth, you can look up at your family picture and be reminded of the reason you’re doing this. You may have been feeling tired and wanting to go back to bed, but reconnecting with your “why” can re-energize you to stick to the commitment.
In our second example, doing more push-ups throughout the day, the cues will likely be different. The first cue will involve associating push-ups with a behavior you’re already doing. Since the objective is doing something multiple times a day, tying the behavior to a preexisting habit or behavior will make this easier. One way could be to do two push-ups every time you eat or drink something. Of course you could do more, but setting the initial bar for success is a great way to get in the rhythm and make it stick. On days when your motivation is lower, or time is short, you might just do the minimum. Other times, you might do five or many more.
Another principle of habit formation is to reward the behavior. Now, before you decide to treat yourself with an extra cookie for two push-ups, stay with me. As we mentioned in lesson two, using our muscles releases “feel-good chemicals” like myokines. Push-ups can give you that pumped-up feeling in your arms and strength in your hands. Don’t push it to the point of muscle failure when you’re doing push-ups, though, you just want to feel that blood moving. You can get right back to work after the behavior and you’ll likely notice that your head is more clear and your focus comes more freely. That’s your reward for doing push-ups.
The examples we’ve just gone through are simple ideas of what different cues, making new behaviors easy, and rewarding may look like. When it comes to picking your own prompts and cues, be creative and personalize them so they’re meaningful to you and will work for you.
So far, we’ve talked about the three key elements–internal motivation, ability, and environmental cues–to choosing a new habit to start. Now, let’s mention three core characteristics of habits that make them easier to adopt. You’ll notice we’ve been incorporating these already. The first one: make the new habit easy to do. In our example, we put out our workout clothes. You could also map out where you want to go so that decision is made the night before. You can also mentally rehearse how your morning will flow so there are no additional decisions you have to make ahead of walking out the door. You’re reducing friction.
The second characteristic: set the bar low. By setting the bar low, we know we are setting ourselves up for success. In our push-up example, if we stop after two push-ups, we’ve succeeded. Think of it as a ripple effect; change leads to change; success leads to success. By setting an easy target, we’ve set ourselves up to meet those expectations and can exceed them if we want.
The third core characteristic: make the new habit a part of your identity. As you get moving, whether through doing push-ups or going for a walk or run, internalize the sense that you’re somebody who is active. Use the activity you are doing to remind yourself you are now somebody who moves every day. As James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, says, “All big things come from small beginnings,” and “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.”
Speakers As we wrap up our conversation about habits and behavior change, we may still have many unanswered questions. Let’s go over a few common ones. What about wanting to stop a behavior rather than start one? In this case, reverse the process: remove the cue, make it hard to do, and eliminate the motivation or replace it with a different one.
What about setbacks and troubleshooting? Think of forming a new habit as learning a set of skills. One of those skills is troubleshooting when things go wrong. Use setbacks and challenges as opportunities to grow and get better at forming habits. There is no failure, only feedback.
And for one last common question: how long does it take to form a new habit? The answer is, “it depends.” It comes down to our starting point. Generally, it takes about two months of work, but if it’s stacked well as we discussed above, and it’s closely linked with a strong sense of purpose and identity, it might not take long at all. At the heart of this answer, though, is emotion. Getting a habit to stick, making a repeated behavior automatic, must agree with our emotional systems that help us identify when we’re engaging in activities that are meaningful.
When you’re working to change a habit, remind yourself that you’re learning a new skill. Make it easy on yourself and keep it simple; pick one habit – a behavior you want to start or stop – and develop it. Review the three key elements: motivation, skill and ability, and cues. Then ask yourself: is this habit easy to do (or not do)? Have I set my expectations low enough so I can do (or not do) this behavior consistently? And finally, can I see this habit–or lack of it–as part of my identity?
Remind yourself of why you’re doing this and keep going. As grit researcher Angela Duckworth says, “Success is never final; failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts” (5).
Take heart, let’s do this.
~ Andrea & Marcus
- Between getting better sleep, making dietary changes, and incorporating more movement in your life (among other changes), there are all sorts of opportunities to form a new habit or stop an old one. Practice using the tools here to make one change this week.
- How can you make new habits easier and more rewarding?
- How would you describe the type of man or woman you want to become? What habits would that person engage in or stop engaging in?
We’ve discussed sprinting as a key component to longevity and general fitness. Today, let us introduce you to Tabata intervals.
You may have heard of this before as a method to get fit quickly, and there actually is some merit to that idea. But to do it properly, you have to commit to going all out on the intervals.
The basic design is this: 8 rounds of 20 seconds on, 10 seconds rest.
And that’s it. It’s a four-minute workout that packs a punch, and the exercise you do has to be one you can really throw your weight into. Tuck jumps, jumping lunges, a stationary bike, frog jumps, or a rowing machine are all great options for the infamous Tabata.
This scheme can also be used as a new way to break up other exercises, but it’s not going to yield the same results as what I just mentioned.
So, today’s workout is up to you. Pick a movement you’ve learned that you can do for 20 seconds at a time, and do that for 8 rounds with 10 seconds of rest between.