You know that smoking is taking years off your life. You wish you would stop checking your phone first thing in the morning because looking at Instagram photographs of your friends’ beach vacations is making you miserable. You're determined to start taking a daily walk, but no matter how firm your resolve is the night before, you just can’t bring yourself to get out the door in the morning.
We all have things about ourselves that we wish were different: habits that niggle at us, actions we take that we know aren’t good for our health and well-being. We want to change, sure. But how do we do it?
“Writing is a habit,” Mark Bauerlein, professor emeritus, used to tell his students when I worked as his teaching assistant at Emory University in Atlanta. “And a habit is something you do without thinking.”
“Habits reduce cognitive load and free up mental capacity, so you can allocate your attention to other tasks,” James Clear wrote in his book "Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones."
The reason we humans want to automate, Clear wrote, is that we have a limited amount of conscious attention and we need the space to use it on the most important tasks.
“Your brain is always working to preserve your conscious attention for whatever task is most essential,” Clear wrote.
In other words, he says, the more our everyday behavior is habitual, the more energy our brains have to focus on and solve the larger problems that come our way.
So the issue isn't that you don’t want to have habits—routines that help you live your life more smoothly—but that you don’t want to engage in habitual behavior that reduces your health and well-being.
So how do you do that? Hanley recommended writing down three lists: the things that precede the bad habit (the triggers), the circumstances that make you want to indulge in that bad habit (the context), and the negative effects of the habitual behavior you want to change (the costs).
“When you’re making these lists, don't think too hard,” she said. “But don't limit yourself, either.”
If your bad habit is eating unhealthy snacks in the afternoon, the triggers could be a growling stomach, a dip in your energy level, and your ability to focus after lunch; the context might be that you skipped lunch or you didn't sleep well the night before; and the costs could be that the unhealthy food upsets your stomach, you're not hungry at dinnertime so you miss out on a chance to eat more nutritious foods, and every time you weigh yourself, you see the numbers going up. Maybe you also chastise yourself for your lack of willpower.
“It’s less about willpower and more about giving yourself what you truly need so that you don’t need to fall back on your bad habit to help you get through the day,” Hanley said.
Having an accountability buddy—someone who helps you gain awareness of the habits you're trying to fix and keeps you on task with your new, healthier behaviors can work wonders. Even without a buddy, sometimes just the act of committing to something out loud to several people who love you can help you change. An accountability group is also an excellent idea. Or, if you’re already in a book group that meets weekly or monthly, suggest that the group read some books about better habits for your upcoming meetings.
I have another trick that works, though I’m not sure if behavioral experts would approve. My teens and I like to do weekly, or sometimes monthly, bets. We each commit to the habit we're trying to cultivate (exercise, creative endeavors, spending X amount of time on summer homework assignments). We draw up a contract and sign it. Then we add a monetary penalty if we don’t meet our daily commitment. Sometimes we do “roll-over” bets, which means if we mess up one day and don’t do the 20 minutes of reading or math, we’re allowed to make it up by doing 40 minutes the next day. Sometimes we do “sudden death,” which means that we must complete our self-imposed assignments (good habits) by midnight that night or pay the other person the fine.
The book details how high Confucius held his elbows, who he talked to when he walked into a room, and how he ate his meals. While attention to those small details hardly seems of great philosophical importance, Confucius believed that the question of how you're living your life on a daily basis was the key to finding the answers to large philosophical dilemmas.
Confucius taught his disciples that small things matter.
Whether you agree with that idea or not, there’s no question that fixing bad habits and cultivating better ones—making small upgrades to your life every day—will help you lead a longer, healthier, happier life.