Health and fitness comes down to habits and behaviour change.
What separates the sedentary population with the fit and the fit with the elite athletes is their habits. Their daily behaviours are what sets them up for success. Getting to the next level, whether that’s from the couch to the gym, or from a 100kg deadlift to a 200kg deadlift, it heavily relies on behaviour change and habit formation.
I’ve believed this for a while now however, it really hit home recently when I listened to the @artofmanliness podcast with guest James Clear – author of Atomic Habits.
All too often in this profession we are asked “how long until I lose 5kg… how long will it take me to add 20kg to my bench… how long until I’ll run a sub 10min 3km time trial?” Why I like James’ approach to these questions is because he views habits as a lifestyle to live, not a finish line to cross.
Making small sustainable changes to your current life might not seem like it’s going to change anything in the short term and honestly it probably won’t. If you stop eating ice cream for dessert after dinner every night for a week. At the end of the week, you’re very much the same person. But what about in a month’s time? 1 year’s time? 5 or 10 years time? You could be an entirely new person.
When you look at improving your life by 1% each day in some aspect, be it, nutrition, training, sleep etc. Over the long-term it really begins adding up. Instead of looking at habits as something you form in 21 days, 3 months or a year, what you’re looking to do is create a new normal.
By creating a new normal, you reduce the friction involved in performing the new thing you’re trying to do. Instead of waking up and asking the question - “Should I exercise today?” the question quickly becomes “What kind of exercise am I doing today?”
James uses cognitive and behavioural psychology to develop the 4 laws of behaviour change that revolve around the 4 steps of the habit loop; Cue, Craving, Response and Reward.
His 4 Laws are:
Cue – make it obvious: you want the cues of your good habits to be obvious, available and visible. If you’re interested in eating more fruit don’t put it out of sight, in the bottom drawer of the fridge. Find a nice bowl to store the fruit in, and place it somewhere central, maybe the kitchen bench or living room. This way, you'l be exposed to it several times a day.
Craving – make it attractive: the more attractive a behaviour is the more likely you are to repeat it. Generally, the good habits we want to achieve aren’t so attractive (going for a run every morning before work), while the bad habits are super attractive (staying in bed for an extra 45 minutes in the morning). How we can do this is through temptation bundling (pairing the new habit with something we love to do – James uses the example of stationary bike while watching Netflix) or a commitment device (locking in a positive habit in the future by making a choice now – such as messaging a friend to meet at 6:30am before work to run 5km). These methods can be used initially to start a new behaviour before it turns into a belief.
Response – make it easy: James uses a 2-minute drill for this. You should scale any behaviour you want to change down to 2 minutes. If you want to run 5km a day, start by running up the street. Want to start reading a book a month? Read 1 page a day. You need to establish a habit before it can be improved. Running everyday needs to become the standard before you improve from 2 minutes to 5km.
Reward – make it satisfying: the aim of this is to make it immediately satisfying. This is why it’s so tempting to eat a sugary snack like a cookie. Habits and behaviours produce multiple outcomes across time. What many people can’t get past is the immediate satisfaction that comes from most negative habits as oppose to the long-term satisfaction that comes from positive habits. Going to the gym may be unfavourable in the short-term (hard work) but favourable in the long-term (healthier, look better, feel better). A small way in which you can pull the satisfaction from the long-term in the now is by habit tracking. Marking an X on the calendar every day you perform a habit.
Basically, to break all the bad habits we want to do the opposite to all the steps above.
1. Make it invisible – while it's important to make the good habits you want to create obvious and in your face, with bad habits it's important to make them hard to find. Throw the soft drink in the fridge to the back behind the vegetables. Or even better, don’t buy any so that its not even an option. Then if you really want it, you have to decide to drive down the street and buy some.
2. Make it unattractive – this one might seem a little difficult and could potentially be the hardest part about breaking a bad habit. But an effective way to stop a negative habit is to hang around with people who don't partake in said habit. For example, if you’re trying to quit smoking, hang around with people that don’t smoke more often. This way you're less likely to smoke because it goes against the norm of the group. And to build a new habit such as exercising more, finding a group of friends that regularly exercise makes the transition much easier.
3. Make it difficult – increasing the friction or number of steps involved in performing a bad habit deters you from defaulting to what you're trying to break. If you’re trying to stay off social media more, move all your apps onto the last page in your phone and place them all in a nested folder with a passcode lock. This increases the number of steps it takes to open the app and start mindlessly scrolling.
4. Make it unsatisfying – take those long-term consequences i.e. eating too many donuts every week can lead to increased fat mass and issues with your blood vessels – and bring them into the present. This has been shown to deter people from performing the bad habit even though the sugary taste of a donut may be what's satisfying right now.
In summary, break habits down into smaller, manageable actions by using the 2-minute drill every day on the habit you want to create. Start to view habits as a lifestyle to live and not a finish line to cross. Remember that a habit must be established before it can be improved. Use the 4 laws of behaviour change to make the formation of new habits and breakdown of bad habits easier. Remember that a habit needs to be established as your new normal before it can be improved upon.
For more information of The Art of Manliness Podcasts or James Clear's Atomic Habits head to the links down below #one22
Art of Manliness Podcast & Blog: https://www.artofmanliness.com/
James Clear - Atomic Habits: https://jamesclear.com/atomic-habits