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Drew Hill
Drew Hill

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Building Better Habits

This is my first post. Please leave any and all feedback you have! I'd love to be more active in this wonderful community.

I'm a big fan of setting goals. I greatly prefer setting SMART goals to make sure I know what I'm striving for. Goals are a great planning tool, but they don't go much further than that. They don't do the things you need to do to achieve that goal, or give you a plan to reach it, or really do anything but give you an end point. You can't get to an ending without a starting point somewhere, so where does that come from?

Here's what I mean: let's say I set a goal that I want to lose 15 pounds in 6 months. Okay, great! It checks all of the boxes of a SMART goal - specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based. I've got this awesome goal and... now what? It's not just going to magically happen - I have to do something to get a little closer to that goal. I have to do a lot of somethings, and I have to do some things a lot of times over and over again.

Let's continue with this example to talk about habits. Outcomes in your life, especially good ones that you set goals for, are a lagging result of your habits. Your weight is a lagging result of your eating habits. Your financial success is a lagging result of your spending habits. Outcomes are a product of the habits you have in your life. That means in order to lose weight, I need to have good eating habits.

Now we know what we need to do to achieve that goal -- just have good eating habits! Easy, right? If it were that easy then obesity wouldn't be as bad of an epidemic in the United States as it is today. How do we create a good habit and make it stick? You can look at it from the inverse too - how do you rid yourself of a negative habit? I've come across a podcast and a couple of videos that discuss a very solid method for doing this with science and research backing the points it makes.

The creation of a habit can be broken down into four steps:

  • Make it obvious
  • Make it attractive
  • Make it easy
  • Make it satisfying

The riddance of a habit is the inverse:

  • Make it invisible
  • Make it unattractive
  • Make it difficult
  • Make it unsatisfying

What do I need to do to develop a good eating habit? Let's start small: I want to eat a better breakfast every morning. Instead of a donut from Krispy Kreme and a coffee from Starbucks every morning, I want to eat something smaller and more satisfying.

First step: make it obvious. I can achieve this by setting some bananas on my counter that are readily available and standing out so I'm more inclined to take it and eat it for breakfast instead of stopping somewhere on the way to work.

Second step: make it attractive. This can be achieved by looking at the clothes that I want to wear, but don't necessarily fit into. It's a very attractive notion that I could fit into that suit again, or that I can wear jeans a size or two down.

Third step: make it easy. If I find alternatives that I enjoy eating as much as that donut but healthier, it is easy to make the decision to eat healthier.

Fourth step: make it satisfying. Eating an egg sometimes isn't nearly as satisfying as a chocolate iced glazed donut from Krispy Kreme, but our brain is wired in such a way that we can make it satisfying in other ways. Using something like MyFitnessPal to track the amount of calories you eat is a simple action, but it is instant gratification to your brain. You are marking something down that you accomplished immediately, which stimulates your brain to release a response of good feelings. This will compound on itself as you see the results of your efforts, making it more satisfying over time. Once you've achieved that, the habit will have been formed.

Now what about getting rid of a bad habit? Let's say I want to watch less TV. I could hide it behind a cabinet to make it invisible, or get up and unplug the TV after I watch it every time to make it difficult to watch again. I won't go as in depth with an example for getting rid of a bad habit, but hopefully you get the idea.

There's one more thing to this: you have to actually do it. If you change your eating habits cold turkey (no pun intended) and try to switch your entire lifestyle overnight, you will inevitably fail. If you scale it down as far as you can and master the art of "showing up," it will be so much easier and you will be far more likely to succeed in building better habits. Don't try to eat nothing but a salad for lunch and dinner with a banana for breakfast every day for a month - instead change that large drink from the fast food joint to a medium or get a glass of water instead. Swap out your donut for a banana. If you can handle actually doing that, then scale up from there once you've built that small habit. Eventually, the small habits will have built upon themselves into better eating habits overall, and the consequence of your better eating habits will let you achieve the goal you set in the first place - to lose weight.

This is exactly why things like #100daysofcode are so successful. They have short challenges that get you doing something every day - you're showing up and have a small scale to start out with to build a better habit of coding every day. It's attractive because there is a community around it to show off to, obvious because you can see that hashtag everywhere, easy because it doesn't take that much time to do every day, and satisfying because you actually have something to show for it at the end of every day.

Goals are great to have, but make sure you are working on the habits you need to achieve those goals.

I'd be amiss if I didn't credit the source of a lot of this line of thinking! I heard about this for the first time on the Full Stack Radio podcast where the host had a conversation with James Clear about building your environment to shape your behavior. He has a lot of great talks and videos, and even sells a book called "Atomic Habits" that is an extension of everything talked about here. He is a bit more critical of setting goals, but my personal belief is that the combination of the two is what will set you up for success.

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