Part 3 How to Change Behaviours & Bad Habits

Updated: May 17

Third Law: Make it easy (response)

With the First and Second Law we saw the problem half of Clear’s habit formation cycle-make the cue obvious and the craving attractive. With this third law we come to the solution half of the cycle: Here we understand the factors that help us to make it easy to formulate a response solution that will develop or maintain a good habit.

How long for a new habit? Looking at long-term potentiation

People ask, “How long does it take to form a new habit?” The answer is another question: “How long will it take you to repeat this behaviour so much that the structure of your brain changes to become efficient at the activity?” When the forming of a habit is tracked, behaviour is seen to change and habits form as a function of frequency, not time (Clear, 2018; Calbet, 2018). Thus, the easier we make the action we are trying to make habitual, the greater the chance that we will perform it with frequency and the sooner the new habit. Here are some strategies for making it easier.

Reduce friction for new good habits; increase friction in to-be-eliminated habits

Recall that the brain is rather lazy. It likes things easy, so it tends (we tend) to adopt those habits which reduce a bit of friction in our lives. Examples here include: joining the gym that is closer to work or home to reduce the hassle of just getting there or getting the grocery store to deliver the groceries after you shop and pay for them online. We can likewise increase friction by putting the chocolate we are trying to give up WAY out of reach (ditto for the video games). The basic idea is to set up the environment where doing “the right thing” (whatever habit we are trying to inculcate) is as easy as possible and doing the “wrong thing” is more difficult.

One percent better, the Two Minute Rule, and habit-shaping

We can make it easier on ourselves to do the hard part of getting started on a habit by initially making it small enough that we can be unfailingly consistent from the very beginning. No one really feels motivated by a goal to, say, floss just one tooth, or do just one push-up each night, but once consistency (read: frequency) is gained, the habit-maker can add length of time spent in the activity (Fogg, in Oppong, 2018).

Similarly, James Clear (2018) advocates following the Two Minute Rule, in which he notes that if you want to, say, run a marathon, it is a worthy but very difficult goal. Running a 5-kilometre run is still hard. Walking 10,000 steps is moderate in difficulty. Walking 10 minutes is easy. And putting on your jogging shoes? Ah, that, says Clear, is very easy. You can do it in two minutes. It can be the start of the eventual completion of the marathon. Putting on your shoes is a “gateway habit”: one which leads as a small action to a bigger piece of action. The small action begins to shape your behaviour. That is, you expect to put your jogging shoes on each day. Clear notes that, what happens after the two minute “gateway” behaviour may be challenging (e.g., doing a whole run today), but the first two minutes should be easy, so that you can “buy in” fairly small, and start wiring together the neurons that lace up your jogging shoes with the ones that see you step out onto the jogging track (Clear, 2018).

By doing something for just two minutes, you are establishing a habit that can later be improved. In terms of neuroscience, you are then free to shape the habit, retraining your neurons to expect the daily jog, journaling session, tooth-flossing, or whatever. Eventually, you are able to recognise the initial two-minute habit as a ritualised routine that is part of a larger, successfully installed, habit. And even small behaviour change achievements increase self-efficacy, which stimulates pursuit of further changes, so forming one ‘small’ healthy habit may increase self-confidence for working toward other or larger health-promoting habits (Gardner et al, 2012).

The Third Law inverted: making it hard to do the wrong thing

You can also consider how you might make the “bad” habit harder to do. We’ve noted the possibility of hiding away undesirable items (e.g., food, technology toys, etc.). How can you extend this idea to other realms of life? For instance, if you want to save money for retirement, have the designated amount deducted from your pay check before you ever see it. Want to lose weight? Buy smaller plates, so that they are full with less on them. Actions like asking Payroll to automatically deduct the savings or buying small plates are one-off actions that pay habit “dividends” over and over again because they “automate” the routine, making it difficult to continue the “bad” habit (Clear, 2018).

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