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Two Rules of Habit Formation

by Beth on January 20th, 2021

Last year I wrote a blog about how making behaviors easy and using cues as reminders can help you create habits for positive change. These ideas are based on the typical model of habit formation: a cue leads to a behavior that results in a reward, which causes the behavior to be repeated the next time the cue is present. In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear includes a fourth step in the habit loop: a craving. He explains that a cue must first lead to a craving in order for the behavior to happen.

Based on this four-step model, Clear outlines four rules for creating good habits:

1. Make it obvious – The clearer a cue is the better. If you want to exercise in the morning, leave your workout clothes by the bed. If you want to eat more fruit, keep a bowl of fruit out on the counter. Time and location are good cues, so make a concrete plan as to when and where you will do something. I practice yoga on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 4:30. Current habits can also serve as cues. Habit stacking is when you add a new habit on top of a current habit. I built my meditation habit by meditating every day after lunch.

If you want to stop a bad habit, make the cue less obvious. I leave my phone in another room when I’m writing. This way I’m not tempted to check it and I can stay focused. My social media apps are all on the 3rd screen of my phone. The few sweets we have in our house are stored in a closed container on the top shelf of our pantry.

2. Make it attractive – You are more likely to form a habit if the experience is pleasurable. Dopamine is a feel-good hormone that is released in your brain when you experience and anticipate positive feelings. This creates a craving, teaching your brain to repeat a behavior that feels good. If you hate to run, choose yoga or walking instead. The best form of exercise is one you enjoy, because you are more likely to stick with it.

Temptation bundling can help you build a good habit by linking something you like to do with something you think you should do. Katy Milkman, a behavior scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, discovered the power of temptation bundling in a study showing that people were more likely to go to the gym when they only had access to an audio book they liked while exercising there. I only allow myself to listen to my favorite podcast (currently Smartless) when I go on a walk and I play music I love when I do chores around the house.

Stay tuned for my next post where I’ll discuss the other two rules of habit formation: make it easy and make it satisfying!

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