When something is a habit, it’s easy to do. That’s because habits are automatic behaviors – things we do without even thinking about it.
Habits are better than goals for changing behavior, yet for New Year’s resolutions, people usually just state their goals – “I’ll eat more vegetables.” What if people resolved to create habits, instead?
“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” Those are wise words from James Clear, author of Atomic Habits. Habits are internal systems. And they drive what we do, in a way that goals simply don’t.
How do we create habits? It goes something like this:
- Pick a simple behavior (e.g., when you start your day, pack carrots to bring with you)
- Pick a time and a place (e.g., your kitchen, after you brush your teeth in the morning)
- Repeat the heck out of that behavior at that time and place (this is effortful, at first)
- Enjoy a reward when you do it (e.g., breakfast, a nice shower, or just a moment of pride)
Gradually, the behavior becomes more automatic. You just do it, without really deciding to do it. Eventually, you have a habit to pack carrots at the beginning of the day.
What is a fruit and vegetable habit?
Wendy Wood, author of Good Habits, Bad Habits, offers some smart nuance: A habit is “not what the action is.” Rather, the habit is “how you perform an action”. (P.25).
So, our New Year’s resolution does not focus on the what: Eating fruits and veggies.
Instead, it focuses on the how: Eating some fruits and veggies effortlessly.
It will become effortless because you will be creating an “internal system” – an automatic association between getting to the kitchen in the morning and packing fruits and veggies for the day.
How can we succeed at habit creation?
- Choose a bottleneck behavior. New habits should focus on a key bottleneck behavior that can be repeated each day. In my example above, I emphasized the morning preparation for fruits and veggies, since, for me at least, the actual eating is pretty automatic once the carrots are in my face. The habit should be focused on getting the carrots in front of me. I can handle it from there.
- Choose a common context. Habits thrive in context, and usually that means a particular time and place. Context is important to help a “mental association” form. Contextual cues will eventually bring the desired behavior to mind automatically. The mere act of “walking to the kitchen in the morning” will start to trigger the thought of “open the fridge and grab carrots”.
- Repeat, repeat, repeat. It takes some habits a few weeks to form, others need many months. It’s not effortless at first. That’s why the New Year is such a great time to start these things. It’s a time when we are fired up and ready to try. Let’s use that fresh start energy to repeat a behavior, in a context, so that the behavior can effortlessly continue after the fresh start energy wanes.
- Find some reward. Habits are stickier when they are rewarded soon after the behavior occurs. Enjoying breakfast, or the morning shower, or an entertaining podcast, or just boasting on social media, are all ways to reward the morning carrot preparation. It’s convenient if the reward was going to happen anyway (e.g., like breakfast, or the shower). We don’t want to overthink the reward.
Habits aren’t foolproof. You need some organization. You still need to buy the carrots. But with a little upstream effort, you can remove a lot of downstream effort.
This New Year, let’s resolve to start a new fruit and vegetable habit.
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