Ask 100 people if they had habits they want to change, and I bet 99 would say “yes.” And the other person would be lying. Our lives are so dominated by routines. We need to actively pay attention to our habits if we want anything to change. Creating habits — good habits — is a way for us to intentionally work on our personal development.
Many struggle with this, as evidenced by all the habit books, courses, and articles out there.
James Clear is one of the leading experts on habit building. His book Atomic Habits is a must-read on the subject. To explain how habits stick, Clear breaks them into four laws: Cue, Craving, Response, and Reward.
These aren’t new ideas, though he explains them in a way that is easier to understand and apply than most others. However, when it comes to sticking with a new habit, I’ve found a different approach works best for me:
I figure out where I will go wrong and proactively plan against that.
Creating habits that stick is as much about anticipating how you’ll try to break them as it is about making it something you do without thinking.
In other words, getting a habit to run on autopilot is great, but tedious. Understanding the ways you’ll try to sabotage yourself in advance will help you stay out of your own way.
When Is Cheat Day?
Like millions of other Americans, I’ve “participated” in my share of diets. Strict, fad, tried and true, lenient, simple, complex, you name it. I’ve tried all different kinds, with varying results.
One thing that is constant, each time I’ve started a new program is my first question: When can I eat what I want? [Yes, I understand how problematic that is.]
Some diets run for 30 days. Others tell you one day a week can be your day to indulge. Some have safeguards built in so you can satisfy cravings as they come.
I could follow all the habit-building advice there is — prep all my meals, habit stack, accountability partners, etc, — but if I don’t have a clear understanding of when the discipline is going to “end” I will struggle. And, as a result, I’ve struggled with pretty much every formal plan I’ve tried.
I know that about myself. But because I know it, I can develop ways to work around it.
Continuing with the diet example, I’ve recently found success not because I have a superior diet plan, but because I’ve accounted for my weakness. I know when and how I will try to break the new habit and outsmart myself before that happens.
I anticipate when I will be hungry and make sure I have good choices available to me. Allowing myself small doses of excess prevents me from throwing everything away in one binge session. I double down on exercise to account for my lapses in willpower against sweets.
It might take a little longer, but the likelihood of success will increase.
The key is to defeat self-sabotage long before it presents itself.
Creating Habits That Stick
We overthink personal development, especially when it comes to creating good habits. We put a lot of emphasis on them when in reality a habit is only as good as our ability to stick with it.
Accounting for temptation is critical in creating habits that stick. The better we can anticipate the mind games we’ll play with ourselves, the better equipped we’ll be to prevent those rationalizations from completely derailing our efforts.
Ultimately, this means we have to outsmart ourselves long before we’re tempted to indulge.