The Power of Habits and How to Create a System That Works For You

Ten Things You Wish You Knew About Behavioral Change

Ayo Oppenheimer Abitbol - 19 August 2021

How many times have you set a goal only to find that you lose motivation before achieving it?  And how many New Year’s resolutions have any of us made that actually lasted beyond the month of January?

Whether our goal is to exercise more frequently, to spend more frugally or to increase our reading time, there is often a disconnect between our aspirations and reality.  When we fail to reach our goal, an internal soundtrack kicks in.  We tell ourselves stories about how we weren’t disciplined enough or that we didn’t want the goal badly enough or maybe just that we didn’t have the willpower.

But what if all of that simply wasn’t true?  In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear mind-blowingly posits that bad habits repeat themselves again and again not because we don't want to change, but because we have the wrong system for change.  Clear urges us to forget about setting goals and to focus on our systems instead.

What is an atomic habit?  An atomic habit is a regular practice or routine that is small, easy to do and is also the ‘source of incredible power’.  An atomic habit is a component of the system of compound growth, like when you save or invest and (hopefully!) see that money grow with time.

But how do we cultivate the power of habits and create a system that works on our behalf?  

The key to behavioral transformation and the answers to these questions can be found in our top 10 list of Atomic Habits principles:

1. Keep it small and look for an easy win.  When starting a new habit, spend less than two minutes doing it.  If you’d like to become a yogi, start with one to two minutes of yoga or meditation and then you’re done.  Don’t push yourself too fast or too hard.

2.  Make it obvious.  Strategically place desired items in plain sight.  Want to eat more vegetables?  Put them front and center on the kitchen counter.  Want to read more frequently?  Place your book atop your pillow when making your bed in the morning so that it is there waiting for you at the end of the day.

3.  Stack your habits.  Pair something that you currently do with something that you would like to do.  For example, after checking your Facebook, you take a moment to stretch.  Or after getting the kids to sleep, sit on your balcony and watch the sunset.

You could also invert the order and adopt a habit prior to a behavior that you wish to avoid.  For example, every time you wish to pop a cigarette or down a chocolate bar, you could first take a few deep breaths or listen/move to a song of your choice, thereby delaying the less desirable behavior while reinforcing the desired one.

4.  Increase friction.  Make it difficult to revert to negative behaviors by increasing the friction associated with it.  For example, if you’d like to minimize your junk food intake, don’t keep it in the house.  The added friction of needing to run to the grocery when the craving hits may be just enough to forgo the binge.

5.  Adopt an identity mindset.  Focusing on who you wish to become is far more powerful than solely lasering in on what you wish to achieve.  If your goal is to train for a marathon, you no longer have an impetus to run and train when the event is over.  However, if your identity is a runner, then you put on your trainers and run regardless of the big event.  The effect and inspiration of the runner identity are longer-lasting.

6.  Automate your habits.  In his book, Clear writes that “the ultimate way to lock in future behavior is to automate your habits.”  For example, enrolling in an automatic savings plan allows you to make a financial decision today that will continue to benefit you tomorrow.  As a fitness instructor, I keep at least two cardio-oriented classes on my teaching calendar so that, no matter how busy I am, I have automated my workout schedule and will get the cardio in.

7.  Make strategic one time choices.  Consider what decisions you can make to support your habit.  If your goal is to sleep better, a one time choice could be buying a better mattress to improve your sleep.

8.  Allow for one-off indiscretions, but never streaks.  There will be days when you miss or skip your desired behavior.  A single skip is allowed, but never two as that is the start of a new habit or a negative streak.  When missing one day, try to get back into the groove as soon as you can.

9. Be patient. - Your current trajectory is way more important than your current set of results.  Any compounding process takes time and it can be a while until you experience the result of your small changes.

As Clear powerfully writes, “your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits. Your net worth is a lagging measure of your financial habits. Your weight is a lagging measure of your eating habits. Your knowledge is a lagging measure of your learning habits. Your clutter is a lagging measure of your cleaning habits. You get what you repeat.”

10.  Surround yourself with friends and colleagues who share your habits.  One of the best things you can do to achieve your behavioral goals is to surround yourself with people who already practice your desired behavior and with whom you already have something in common.

As a new joiner to YuLife, I am surrounded by a culture where healthy choices are the norm.  Many of the principles above are built into the YuLife app, which helps users to automate behavior, make their new habit easy and obvious, allow for small incremental changes, anchor around identity and build positive streaks.

Through YuLife, our partner companies create workplaces and social cultures of physical and mental health and wellness that support their employees in easily and joyfully making positive behavioral changes.

So if you’re looking to kick an old habit or adopt a sweet new one, remember these ten principles that teach us about ourselves, the human mind and how we can harness the power of systems like the YuLife app to transform into the people we want to be.

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Image Courtesy of Aziz Acharki

Ayo Oppenheimer Abitbol

Ayo is a strategic account planner at YuLife. Ayo previously worked in management consulting and leads a wellness community, where she teaches yoga. Ayo joined the YuLife team in July 2021.