Over the past 6 months, I have read a stack of books on everything from marketing to organizational systems to how to talk to people at parties (much needed).
I will eventually go into detail on important lessons from all of these books, but today, on the first of the year, I want to focus on one topic in particular: the power of habits.
While applicable year round, strategies for establishing and maintaining habits are especially relevant when it comes to New Years Resolutions.
Disclaimer: personally, I do not partake in New Year's Resolutions. I am a firm believer that taking action and beginning the behavior change process can happen at any point of the year, and that the hype around New Years Resolutions often results in too much planning, waiting, and, well, not changing.
I’ll get into that more later.
We’ll discuss several strategies for helping you implement and maintain healthy habits, but in order to achieve a goal, we must first look at how to set a good one!
Enter: The SMART Framework.
What are SMART Goals?
If you haven’t yet been exposed to this method for setting goals, it’s about to change your life. The SMART framework ensures that the goals you set meet the following five criteria:
Specific - the goal itself should be narrow so that you can stay focused on what you’re trying to achieve.
Measurable - there must be some way to track progress towards achieving your goal, and determine whether you have met it.
Attainable - goals should be challenging, but also realistic. You should be able to achieve them if you put in the effort!
Relevant - every goal should have some personal meaning attached to it, and be something that you want to achieve.
Time-bound - there must be an end-date or time limit by which your goal must be achieved.
Let’s look at an example; say you want to “be healthier” going into the next year. This goal is very broad, so you first must narrow it down in order to meet the criteria of being “specific.”
Okay, so you want to be a runner. How can you quantify that? You can make this goal “measurable” in several ways, from time spent running, to the distance you’ve run, to how often you lace up your running shoes.
Let’s say you set the goal of running a 5k. This is certainly “attainable,” even if you’ve never run before. And as exercise will make you healthier, you can also consider it to be “relevant” within the bigger picture of your life.
The last criteria that must be met is making this goal “time-bound”. To keep it attainable, you will need some time to train, so let’s say 6 months. Your new (and improved) goals looks like this:
In order to be healthier, I will run a 5k within the next 6 months.
From here, you can create a plan to start training and implementing running as a healthy habit. If you’re new to exercise, this could be a major life change.
No behavior change comes easy, but luckily there are several strategies you can use to increase your probability of success. Let’s start by looking at the four principles of behavior change, as brought to you by one of my most recent reads: James Clear’s Atomic Habits.
The Four Principles of Behavior Change
If you haven’t yet read this New York Times best seller, it is a great place to start the process of elevating your life. James Clear is an expert in habit formation, and breaks down how “tiny changes can lead to remarkable results.”
The Four Laws of Behavior Change, as outlined in Atomic Habits, each have two parts; one that can be implemented to reinforce positive habits, and one to discourage negative habits. Let’s dig in:
Make it Obvious/Invisible
While this rule may seem, well, obvious, its effectiveness is more powerful than you think. All actions are initiated by cues, so when it comes to creating good habits it is essential to make sure the cues that trigger them are visible. For example- if choosing healthier snacks is one of your goals, keep fresh fruit in a bowl on the counter.
Breaking a bad habit, on the other hand, requires making the cue less obvious. When it comes to healthy snacking, keep the candy jar tucked away in the pantry to limit its visibility!
This rule can be applied to any habits you may be trying to implement, whether it's healthy eating, exercise, or journaling. The more visible a cue is, the more likely you are to follow through with its subsequent behavior- good or bad.
Make it Attractive/Unattractive
The second principle of behavior change is all about pairing. Connect a habit that you want to establish with something that you already enjoy doing. And on the contrary, pair something you dislike doing with a habit you want to break- such as doing 20 push-ups every time you check Instagram.
Connecting two behaviors is a strategy we’ve been exposed to since childhood. Whether a “gold star,” a sweet treat, or approval was the reward, you’ve likely been awarded with “attractive” results for good behaviors throughout your entire life.
Now, you can take advantage of that knowledge to build your own good behaviors! Pair scrolling Twitter with drinking green juice to get your veggies in, or buy a new book every month that you stick to your budget. It might seem simple, but this system is highly effective
Make it Easy/Difficult
Environmental factors have a huge impact on the ease with which you can build or break a habit. Some of these factors are controllable, but others are not, so it is important to focus on what can be changed.
Creating visible cues for your desired habit is one way to optimize your environment, but let’s dive into other, more significant changes.
The physical space you surround yourself with can influence your behaviors in both obvious and subtle ways. For example, if you are trying to build a habit of meditation, it would be difficult to do so in a disorganized, cluttered room. Instead, create a more relaxing environment that makes it easy to be calm and focused during your daily practice.
This strategy can also be used to discourage bad habits. If you find yourself watching too much TV, doing something as simple as taking the batteries out of the remote will create more friction between you and the behavior.
Make it Satisfying/Unsatisfying
There’s an undeniable sense of satisfaction when you are able to maintain a new healthy habit. To keep your momentum going, capitalize on that feeling!
There are plenty of tools out there to observe your progress; try using a habit tracker, journaling, or finding an accountability partner.
This principle also relates back to utilizing a reward system to encourage behavior change. If you are eliminating a bad habit, replace that time with something else that is enjoyable so that you remain satisfied!
These Four Laws of Behavior Change, as outlined by James Clear, are a great tool for achieving your goals and making positive behavior changes. Let’s dive into another important concept for establishing healthy habits this new year:
Small Steps, Big Rewards
Change can be intimidating no matter what form it takes. Looking at the “big picture” of things, whether positive or negative, can be overwhelming.
Let’s break that down.
Reducing a larger goal into smaller steps allows you to map out your journey to success. One tiny bit of improvement at a time will add up, and before you know it you will be much closer to your goals than you think.
This concept is known as the 1% rule, and it is a powerful thing.
When change seems overwhelming, making the effort to become just 1% better, or move 1% closer to your goal each day will have a phenomenal effect.
Not only are these small steps actively moving the dial closer to accomplishment, they also build momentum that makes you much more likely to achieve your goal than if you waited to start until you were fully prepared.
Another rule, known as the “Two-Minute Rule,” is based on the same principle that doing something is always better than doing nothing.
The rule states that if a task will take you less than two minutes to complete, you should do it right away.
This logic can be applied to daily tasks and long term goals; it takes less than two minutes to hang your clothes back up rather than leave them on the floor, and it takes less than two minutes to text a friend and ask them to introduce you to that business connection they were talking about.
Two minute tasks add up fast, and before you know it all of the small steps you’ve taken will lead you to success and accomplishment.
Action is Always Greater than Planning
When it comes down to it, none of these strategies, laws, tips, or tricks, will make any difference in your life unless you actually start to implement them.
Too often, we get caught up in the “preparation” aspect of behavior change, and never actually take the necessary steps to establish healthy habits that will help us in the long run.
Too often, we find excuses to procrastinate making positive life changes.
“I’ll start eating healthy after I finish all the junk food in the house.”
“I’ll fix my sleep schedule once work calms down.”
“I’m waiting to start therapy until the New Year.”
And thus I am jaded against New Year’s Resolutions. Sure, I still have goals for myself. But time is pressing, fleeting, and valuable and I have things to do. So when it comes to improving my health, my life, and the world around me - I’m going to start today.
Action is always greater than preparation.
So what are you going to do about it?