TEDxAUCollege | A practical guide for forming new habits
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A practical guide for forming new habits

-Nina Liu

‘New year, new me’ is a quote that is commonly associated with the start of a new year. Like most people, you might have made a list of new year’s resolutions at the start of 2019. Since we’re almost three weeks into the new year, this might be a good time to reflect on your intentions and whether you have lived up to them, or whether you’ve already thrown your resolutions out of the window. If the latter is the case, but you’re keen to get back on track, we’ve got you covered. The biggest problem with living up to new year’s resolution is that it requires forming new habits, which has proven to be difficult. Fortunately, in his book Atomic Habits’, James Clear talks about how to form good habits and abandon bad ones. In this post, we’ve made a round-up of his most useful tips that will help you to not only kick start a new habit, but also to stick to it all year.

At the mental level: define your identity

According to Clear, the basis for forming new habits lies in the mind, more particularly in how you define yourself. An example that very well illustrates this is the intention to get up early in the morning. If you consider yourself to be a real night owl, the identification of ‘not being a morning person’ is so deeply rooted in your mind that you keep acting accordingly. After all, we all tend to act in the way that is consistent with our identity. If you define yourself as ‘an night owl’, then every morning when the alarm goes off, you have a perfect excuse for not getting up early – this is who you are, how can you be blamed? But is this really the case?

French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre once said, ‘A man is what he makes of himself.’ According to Sartre, there are no fixed pre-determined characteristics of your identity at birth. In the process of habit formation, we tend to think that only by achieving a specific outcome can we truly alter our identity, for instance that only by achieving A’s in exams we can become good students. Nevertheless, it is completely the other way round. It is our actions that are being affected by how we define ourselves. For example, if you define yourself as a good student, you will probably be very harsh on yourself – forcing yourself to finish all assignments on time and to stay active in class discussion – which leads to good grades, and thus eventually reinforces your identity of being a good student.

Thus, it is way more effective to build identity-based habits instead of outcome-based habits. But how does this work precisely? In short, what you need to do is quite simple – first define the person who you want to be, and then act accordingly. The four steps below describe how this process can be divided into four easy steps that will lead you to finally live up to your new year’s resolutions.

In day-to-day practice: the Four Laws of Behavior Change

1.  CUE – make it obvious Needless to say, you need to set some goals in the very first place. However, the little trick here is that the intention must be detailed and specific enough to really take action. Never say something like ‘I want to lose weight’ or ‘I want to build on muscles’; rather, you should define specific actions that need to be undertaken in order to achieve your goals. In other words, break down your goal into smaller and achievable short-term tasks. Try to fill in the formula ‘I will (behavior) at (time) in (location)’, e.g. I will work out every evening at 6 o’clock in the gym.

2. CRAVINGS – make it attractive Next, you really need to be motivated to carry out those defined tasks every day. The easiest way to do this is by combining them with something you enjoy doing. Therefore, the second useful habit-formula is as follows: ‘Only after (habit I need to build) can I do (habit I want/like)’. For instance, if you’re quite a social media addict, you could come up with the following intention: ‘Only after I finished up my reading can I check Facebook and Instagram.’

3. RESPONSE – make it easy We are more likely to stick to easy and effortless habits, so reducing the hurdles associated with good habits is the fundamental key to success. Prepare everything beforehand to ensure your way to achieve your goal is as smooth as possible, so that you will have no excuse for giving in. For example, if you want to get up early, then prepare everything the night before so that you won’t be struggling with questions like what to wear and what to eat for breakfast in the morning. On the other hand, if you’re trying to let go of a habit – for example checking your phone while working on assignments – adding obstacles that prevent you from carrying out that habit is very useful. In the case of the former example, keeping your phone in another room while you are studying will discourage you from reaching for your phone.

4. REWARD – make it satisfying According to Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning, we as human beings naturally repeat doing what is rewarded and avoid doing what is punished. Accordingly, it might be helpful to give yourself a little treat every time your accomplished your tasks. This will make you more motivated next time. Over time, what you have been repeatedly doing would eventually become your habit. The reward can be as small as having a piece of chocolate or watching a YouTube video. As long as it gives you an immediate spark of joy, your brain will automatically link this to your new habit-in-the-making, and thus be eager to perform the same action in the future.

A finale note on tracking habits

Tracking your habits, for instance by writing them down, can be an effective way to help you stick to your goals, as it makes your goals obvious and you will be super satisfied ticking off the little boxes every time you accomplished one of your goals. Yet, on the other hand, it is an additional step that adds extra work.  Especially if you have more than ten habits to track, you will no longer enjoy the process of creating new routines. On that note, it might be a good idea to use lists only for your most important resolutions, in order to make the habit-making process as smooth as possible.

We hope you find these tips useful for living up to your new year’s resolutions! If you are still hungry for more habits formation tips, go check out Charles Duhigg’sThe Power of Habit and John Tierney and Roy Baumeister’s Willpower.

P.S. Pitch Night is less than a week away! We hope to all see you in the evening at the AB on Wednesday the 23 of January.