How to Actually Make and Break Habits
Habits are always such a hot topic at the beginning of each year as most people idealize the new year as the time to become the best version of themselves. However, as you know, I’m a big proponent of living in alignment with nature. And what is nature like during winter? Still. Restful. Slow and quiet. Being aligned with nature during winter means that we can sit back, slow down, bask in the stillness of the season, and take time to deeply reflect, choose a direction, and make plans based on our dreams. Then, when spring comes forth to bloom and bring new energy, we can burst forward with it and use that momentum and energy to successfully carry out the dreams we ruminated on during winter.
So now in this time of reflection and dream-setting for our year ahead, we can also take time for learning and preparing to execute on what we desire for the months to come. In recent years, I’ve been learning more about habits, as I’m finding once you figure out how to be successful in creating them, they are so helpful in making progress toward your ideal life. Habits are behavior-based, so a lot of the time the changes we need for growth involves creating new habits and ending old ones.
Prior to deciding I wanted to include a habit tracker in the JMB Living Journal I hadn’t really devoted much time or attention to understanding how to be successful at creating new habits, so my success in this area was somewhat limited as well. However, I began researching the science of habit theory over the last couple of years, since I knew the best way to set journal users up for success was to understand this area of behavior management myself first. A huge reference point for me was the book “Atomic Habits” by James Clear. In this blog post, I’ll share what I thought to be the most important habit analysis that he shares as well as my own knowledge throughout my journey.
What Is a Habit?
Before going into detail about how to successfully choose a habit to make or break and how to do so, it is important to holistically understand habits. Why do we have natural habits? There are parts of our lifestyles that we must do everyday—or sometimes multiple times a day—to maintain our lifestyle. Routines are an organic part of living. Even if you don’t set out to intentionally curate a routine, it’s likely that you have a routine; something as basic as a hygiene routine with brushing your teeth, the order in which you apply products in the shower, how you get dressed each morning: these are all routines. If a routine reflects what is important for your lifestyle, habits show what is important to you.
Outside of unintentional or necessary habits, we have “recreational” habits that help us grow into our optimal selves. These might be ones you’ve tried to implement in the past during each new year such as drinking more water, going to the gym everyday, replying to emails quickly, etc. The structure of each of these habits is flawed, and that’s why they don’t stick. I’ll get into how to prevent this further in the blog post after we’ve covered the basics.
We also have negative habits. Nail biting. Being quick to anger. Smoking. Isolating instead of healing. Negative habits are often reactions or unhealthy coping mechanisms, which is what makes them so common and potentially harmful. In order to work on breaking them, it’s important to recognize them and understand their source.
Why Are Habits Important?
Habits are a key aspect of who we are as individuals because they inherently embody what is important to us enough for us to do it everyday. Our habits reflect our core values, especially as we become more mindful of the habits we want to make and what our desired outcome is.
As we marinate in the season of creating dreams, reflection, and brainstorming growth, we can use our self-knowledge to pick habits that we want and are able to practice daily throughout the year and beyond.
What Can We Do to Make Habits Stick?
Most people have heard that it takes 30 days to make or break a habit. But unfortunately they don’t ever hear what is more common - that it takes a minimum of 30 days to make or break a habit—it can even take months! When you begin creating habits, start out with an intention to be kind to yourself and patient. You’re not going to see a result instantly and if you did, it’s not truly a habit!
In his book, James Clear says that when most people make habits they focus on the outcome of a habit and the desired end result: “I want to drink more water,” “I want to work out everyday,” etc. The first step to creating a habit successfully is to instead focus on who you want to become. And then to create habits that support the identity that you want to create. The focus of…
“I want to drink more water” becomes “I am the type of person that takes good care of my body.”
“I want to work out everyday” becomes “I am a healthy and fit person.”
“I’m going to stop checking my phone in social settings” becomes “I am a good listener and present when with others.”
This is an aspect of just how personal and important habits are. They’re not just shifts in behavior, they are steps to becoming the best version of ourselves that we desire. Which is also a good motivator to maintain them.
How to Successfully Make or Break Habits
One of my main takeaways from “Atomic Habits” was the four laws to successfully making a habit: make it obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying.
1. Make It Obvious- Give yourself natural cues that stimulate your habit such as time and location. If your habit is to be a person with intentional skin care, you might decide on a realistic time and location to attach to your habit, such as in your bathroom at night. If your habit is to be healthier by drinking more water, pick specific times throughout the day to check on your water intake progress—a certain amount of ounces when you get to work, by the time you’re eating lunch, leaving work, and at dinner. The location can be your table where you eat breakfast, your desk, your lunch break area, your car, and your table again at dinnertime. Being in these places or setting an alarm for a specific time will eventually condition your brain to trigger your habit automatically.
2. Make It Attractive- Bundling or habit stacking your goal habit with something you already enjoy doing has the effect of your brain giving you a burst of dopamine each time you do your habit. Like drinking your water while listening to your favorite music on your way to work, performing your skin care routine while you reflect on the beauty and joy you noticed at the end of the day, and journaling while you enjoy your morning cup of coffee or tea. Connecting something you do frequently and enjoy with a habit is another way that encourages your mind and body to automatically perform the habit when you are engaging in the thing you enjoy, and you eventually enjoy your habit as well.
3. Make It Easy- Create an environment that is supportive of the habit you want to create. If you are working on hydration, don’t make yourself have to walk to the kitchen or break room every time you want a drink. Instead, make sure you have a full water bottle within reach. Conversely, if you are trying to give up sweets, having a bowl of candy at your desk doesn’t create an environment that makes it easy to curb your sweet tooth. How can you make small changes that foster an environment that will support the desired change you want to make?
Don’t try to conquer the world all at once. Tackle creating change the easier way by making tiny changes that you can easily master and then once each tiny change is solid, you can add on another layer. You are much more likely to succeed in making the changes you want with this strategy and the results are more likely to last.
James Clear recommends that when you are creating a new habit, you should be able to do it in two minutes or less. It’s so much easier to rationalize that you can take two minutes to dress in work out clothes, then it is to follow through on a 45 minute run when you don’t already have a strong fitness routine. And what’s the likelihood that if you put on the work out clothes, you’ll want to do at least some type of movement? And even if you don’t, if you can create the habit of putting your work-out clothes on every day, in the process you are taking action to strengthen the belief that you are are healthy and fit person. Then next you can layer on a two minute walk or a set of push-ups and crunches etc. If you are starting at ground zero and your intention is to build habits that support the identity, “I am a healthy and fit person.” which method are you more likely to achieve success with - adding small incremental habits or having an intention that is going to require a large amount of will power?
Habits are consistent actions done repeatedly. Making it easy is crucial to getting yourself beyond the tendency to procrastinate and consequently often times not do them.
4. Make It Satisfying- This is where mindfulness really comes in. When you let the act of practicing your habit be viewed as a personal success, you automatically feel satisfied. Be grateful and proud of yourself for your consistency and awareness each time you do your habit, and you will feel more calm and connected from practicing it.
Take the time to think about each of the four laws when you set out to create a new habit and plan accordingly.
When you have a plan to achieve something, you are statistically more likely to follow through and achieve it.
Create an Intentional Environment
I also learned that researchers have found that there is little significant difference between people with self-control and people that struggle with discipline. This is actually good news because it means that you just have to shift our perspective and approach to habits in such a way that are realistic for the way you live. Instead of forcing yourself into a box that isn’t aligned with your normal behavior to create a habit, you can instead change our environment to foster your habit and be a form of discipline.
If you want to drink more water, make sure that it is available to you in a way that encourages you to drink it—with your favorite water bottle or reusable straw, with ice always available; instead of waiting until you’re dehydrated and having a single tiny paper cup from the office water dispenser. A disciplined environment doesn’t have to be restrictive, it can just be an intentional change for your habit that is supported by your surroundings.
Shift Your Perspective
An automatic motivator that might help you stick to a habit is how it is reflective of who you are and what you’re capable of. Instead of a mindset of incapability or failure, when you do your habit everyday, your self-talk transitions to a supportive internal dialogue of how you are consistent and on a trajectory of improvement because you are successful. Your goal habits are tied to who you want to be, so when you practice them, you are simply acting like the person you believe you can be.
If you notice that you hear a lot of negative thoughts about yourself throughout the day, especially regarding your habits, reflect on those. Identifying your negative beliefs can alert you to times that you need a mindset shift. If your first thought after you miss a day in the gym is, “I’m so lazy,” or “I’ll never get fit,” this is a solid indication you are not focused on the identity you are attempting to create.
Try to reframe your internal dialog by saying something more like,“I didn’t make it to the gym today, but because I am the type of person who likes to work out, I’m going to make sure my schedule allows for this tomorrow.” Turn these limiting beliefs into opportunities. If you have a busy day and can’t contribute to your habit of being a more fit person, transform the self-deprecation into “How CAN I work towards being fit today?” Maybe your answer is a walk, a yoga video, or simply stretching. If you push yourself too hard and don’t believe in your ability to achieve, the habit will become an unattainable ideal, rather than a reflection of who you can be.
Breaking a Habit
As I mentioned earlier in the blog, habits that we need to break are often coping mechanisms or reactions to certain triggers, stimuli, or situations. To break these habits, it is best to reduce your exposure to the cues that activate it. If you struggle with sticking to your grocery list because you want to eat out, delete the food delivery apps off your phone. If you overspend, go to a grocery store that only has what you need, rather than going to Target and wandering anytime you need dish detergent. If you bite your nails when you feel overwhelmed or stressed, it’s not practical to completely reduce your exposure to stress, but you can create a disciplined or supportive environment to shift your focus from biting your nails to drinking water until you feel more calm, or even using a stress ball.
When do we feel the most obligation to keep a habit? When someone else is aware of our consistency. Accountability partners and groups are great, but sometimes our habits are deeply personal or it can be hard to find a consistent accountability partner. Habit trackers are perfect accountability partners, and they go beyond just keeping a record, too.
Focus on the WHY you want to break the habit instead of the habit itself.
Make it as hard as possible to execute the habit.
Habit trackers are physical reflections of your progress and consistency with your habit. Once you get on a roll, it can help you keep up the momentum by not wanting to break the pattern you can see on paper. Or if you just can’t seem to get on a roll, it can tell you that you need to try doing things a little differently. Switch up the environment, make it easier (or more difficult) etc.
Not only can you see how much work you’ve put into achieving your habit, but you can also customize them to show other factors that might have influenced your ability to make or break your current habit goal. The trends that your habit tracker can reveal might also help you adjust your habit or your supportive environment. I used my habit tracker to track my habit progress in addition to tracking my daily moods and amount of sleep each night. When I looked back at my habit progress over the month, I also noticed that my mood had a direct relationship with how much sleep I got. For more tips on how to take full advantage of a Habit Tracker, check out our Habit Tracker Hacks.
The JMB Living Journal has a new habit tracker for each month to hit that minimum of 30 days to create your habit, but just because it’s a new month doesn’t mean you need to pick a new habit! Keep developing your habit practice until it’s truly a habit, instead of an intentional act that you have to forcefully curate into your day. When you can do it without thinking or seeing it as a weighty obligation, you know you’re ready to move on to creating your next habit.