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#8: The power of habit

By 2023-01-06May 12th, 2023No Comments

“People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures.” –F. M. Alexander

Last week I wrote about resolutions and why most people fail at them. This week I’ll show you how to turn actions into habits so that your resolutions become an automatic part of your identity as quickly as possible.

This Freedom Letter is based in large parts on the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. If you don’t know it and want to read only one book this year, this one should be it! Clear has significantly influenced my growth and my direction in coaching and training.

His method describes how small daily actions have massive effects down the road. What you do today determines your future. And most of what you do is habit. Because you can only have one conscious thought at a time, habits reduce your cognitive load. They free your mind and let you become more creative and focus your attention on new challenges.

Clear explains that a habit has four steps. You can use any of these to grow a desired habit or subdue an unwanted one. The classic example is the chips you can’t eat because you don’t have them at home.

Your behavior is always driven by a desire to solve problems. With everything you do, you strive either to avoid pain or to gain pleasure. In the problem phase, you realize that something should or must change. It consists of the first two steps:

1. The cue is any information that promises a reward. Primarily, this would be (prehistorically determined) water, food and sex. Secondary rewards could be money, fame, power, status, praise, recognition, love, friendship – things that in turn enable primary rewards.

2. The craving is the motivating force behind reward. You don’t want to pick up the remote control and turn on the TV, you want to be entertained.

In the solution phase you act and achieve the desired change:

3. The response is the actual thought or action that you perceive as a habit.

4. The reward, on the other hand, is the goal of the habit.

In other words, the cue (1) lets you notice the reward (4) and triggers the craving (2). This makes you want the reward and motivates you to a response (3). This produces the reward (4) that satisfies the craving (2) and, given sufficient repetition, becomes associated with the cue (1).

Read that again, because it is an extraordinarily powerful tool from which you can derive clear rules for your habits (resolutions).

Habits shape your identity and your identity shapes your habits. You are what you do. Decide who you want to be and prove it to yourself by taking appropriate actions. Ask yourself: Who do you want to be? And what would this (healthy, fit, honest, reliable, orderly…) person do?

Do not distinguish between good and bad habits, but between effective and ineffective ones. Which lead to the desired identity and which are incongruent with it? Then you can optimize with the four process steps:

To reinforce a desired habit, make the cue obvious, the craving desirable, the response easy, and the reward satisfying.

To weaken an unwanted habit, make the cue invisible, the craving repulsive, the response difficult, and the reward unsatisfying.

As you can see, not all adjustments are equally easy. How do you make chocolate repulsive and unsatisfying to consume when you love it so much? On the other hand: If you don’t have any in your kitchen cupboard, not only does it not tempt you to consume it, but the action is additionally made more difficult (especially if you don’t store any in your basement either).

Tweaking a single step is good, but if you can improve all four, you’ll multiply their effect!

Premier habit management is using one habit as a trigger for the next. Clear calls this a habit stack. Using this knowledge, I built a morning routine that starts with waking up as the first cue.

Think about your own habits and which steps you can make easier or harder and how. Feel free to send me an email – I’m very interested in hearing what you’re working on!


Yours, Ulrich

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