Updated: Aug 18, 2021
Research tells us that anywhere between 50% to 90% of our daily activities are habitual, which means that for most of us, we’re running on cruise control over half the time we’re awake.
The great news is that you get to choose your cruise control settings, and the right settings can significantly improve your performance, and quickly develop strong mental and physical health.
To dial up your cruise control settings you use simple yet effective habit creation and positive behaviour change techniques used by many of the world’s most exceptional people.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” Will Durant
The challenge that you and I have, is that if we believe the habit creation myths, and are using the wrong instruction manual, then driving positive change in our lives is just damn hard.
That’s why in the following sections, I’ll define each myth, then give you simple actionable insights and tips that you can start using today to drive positive change.
If you’re looking for the ‘instruction manual’, then check out Thriverapp’s 3-Step Positive behaviour Change Program designed by Mindhabit.
This myth-busting article is reasonably long (good things can take time). Now, if you only have 5 minutes - out of the 1,440 available to you today 😊 - then you can read the condensed version here. The condensed version of this article gives a quick summary of the four myths, and shares a few key takeaways and tips from each.
Personally, I think your time will be well spent reading the full article.
Let’s get start debunking these myths…
Myth 1: Motivation is critical
Motivation is complicated and unreliable, even the experts cannot agree on the importance of, or type of motivation needed* to help your new habits stick. While motivation is an important piece of the positive behaviour change puzzle, it is definitely not the best place to start.
With motivation there are a heck of a lot of elements at play, and as Beata Souders, MSPP, ACC explains in her recent article for Positivepsychology.com, motivation does not live in a vacuum:
“Our physiological and psychological needs drive us, our cognitions direct us, and emotions land intensity and energy to our pursuits. When the combination of antecedent conditions and the internal motives align, they create a ripe environment for engagement, which propels the action behaviour.”
So, rather than relying on the unreliable, there are better pieces of the puzzle you can focus on to dial up your cruise control settings! Here’s a few tips to make sure you’re focusing on the right pieces:
TIP: Make your new habits so small that they are micro.
At Thriverapp and Mindhabit we call them micro, others call them mini, small, tiny, nano, and atomic — you get the idea. One of the most popular self-improvement books of the last few years has been Atomic Habits by James Clear, however, my personal favourite book on habits is Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg. Call them what you will, nearly every habit expert agrees that the smaller you make your new habits (under 2-min to finish your new habit is a good place to start) the better.
Creating a micro habit means that your new habit doesn’t take long to complete (so you rely less on motivation to finish). And if your new habit is micro, then it’s unlikely you’ll need to learn a new skill, or stretch your ability, to complete it. Again, relying less on motivation.
In this case size really does matter, and micro is magnificent!
TIP: Link your new Micro Habit to a cue.
Your habit loop** is made up of 3 elements: 1] cue, 2] routine (behaviour), and 3] reward. One of the best ways to rely less on motivation is to find a ‘cue’ in your daily routine that you can link your new habit to. This cue acts as a trigger or prompt for you to start your healthy new habit.
As an example, my cue for drinking a glass of water every morning after waking up is brushing my teeth. That’s a great micro habit I’ve been doing this for about six months now and it’s now an almost unconscious decision. i.e., it’s become a regular and easy habit!
Don’t rely on motivation to embed new habits, instead make them ‘micro’ and link your first new habit to an everyday activity which you’re already doing (cue).
* The science of motivation, Psychological Science Agenda | June 2018
* The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, published 2012
Myth 2: Go big or go home
In debunking this second myth let’s talk about your ego and compounding interest . Both are two reasons why going big or going home is a really bad idea.
Speaking of bad ideas, as covered in the previous section debunking Myth 1, the first thing you do with a new habit is rather than going big, make them really small (micro).
TIP: Don’t let your ego trick you into thinking you need to ‘aim high’ to achieve anything.
Sure, goals are great (more on them in the next myth), however, if you aim too high you are more likely to take a misstep or fall. Missteps and falling are often demotivating, and common reasons why people stop embedding a healthy new habit.
The problem with the ego is that he is a sneaky little devil. If you are like me, after a week of adding your new micro habits into your daily routine, your ego will start telling you that you should be doing more; “come on buddy, is that all you’ve got?”. If you listen to your ego, you’ll increase the quantity, difficulty or frequency of your micro habits too early so that you end up breaking your new habits. Because at some point they’ll become too difficult, so you miss a few days, then maybe a week, and all of a sudden those healthy new habits have disappeared.
The trick with your ego and habit creation is to set the micro habit as a ‘baseline’. So, that even if you’re up to thirty push ups every morning, on a bad day you can still do the five you started with (five push ups is another great morning micro habit). Over time, of course you can increase the quantity, difficulty or frequency of your new habits, however, do not lose the ‘micro-base’, so that even after a sleepless night, you can still get up and do those five push ups!
In this case, keeping five push ups as your micro-base will help you continue your ‘streak’, build repetition and continuity into your morning routine, both of which help make that new routine become second nature.
TIP: Compounding interest is one of the most powerful forces on earth.
Leverage compounding interest when creating healthy new habits so that your micro habits are not just easy, but transformational!
If you invested $100 and applied daily compounding interest of 1%, by the end of one month you have $135, by the end of six months $615, and believe it or not, by the end of one year you have over $3,778 in the bank account! That is the power of compounding interest.
Another way of looking at compounding interest, is the elephant eating analogy. Now we’re not into eating elephants here at Thriverapp and Mindhabit, however, if we were, we’d make sure we didn’t bite off more than we could chew in one sitting… We’d start one bite at a time.
Start micro, watch your ego, be patient, and before you know it your new micro habits will become transformational habits!
Myth 3: You must have goals
Goals in life are important, however, when it comes to habit creation and behaviour change, many of you are creating the wrong ones.
One big problem is that nearly all SMART goals, BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals), and future-focused goals are just that… They’re future focused!
It’s like you’re driving down the highway on cruise control, stressing out about your destination, when you should be focused on what’s happening right now, on the road ahead, specifically that cattle truck that’s just jack-knifed in front of you!
These types of goals have clear measurable outcomes you are aiming to achieve in the future, which means often there is a challenging gap that you must cross to link your daily activities (the habits and routines we’re trying to embed) to the end result (the goal) that you are aiming for.
What this means for many of us, is that over time we give up on achieving the goal because we feel we cannot build the bridge. The distance appears too great, the end-goal unrealistic and difficult to achieve (you become demotivated because you feel that you cannot bridge the gap).
TIP: Focus on the everyday activities the eventually achieve the goal, rather than the goal itself.
I’ve borrowed this from my days in corporate running sales teams. Sure, a salesperson needs to have SMART medium and long-term goals to aim for, however, in my experience salespeople very seldom have direct control in the result, in achieving these medium and long-term goals.
An individual salesperson completes daily activities that they have full control over. These activities create opportunities and objectives, which in turn can deliver a result (the goal).
However, they do not have direct control over the goal itself. They cannot guarantee signing up a particular new customer, increasing market share, or holding onto a valuable customer (let’s face it, in sales sometimes sh#t just happens that is out of a salesperson’s control).
However, what a salesperson can control is their daily activities, which through a cause-and-effect relationship potentially will deliver those ultimate goals. i.e., by completing activity A, they’ll achieve objective B, which contributes to delivering Result C.
To bring this back to habit creation and positive behaviour change, the lesson is that while you should have some future focused goals, i.e., get a promotion, run a marathon, finish a degree, buy a car, whatever. When it comes to creating healthy new habits, it’s much better to focus on the present, your progress and activities, rather than an end result (that often you can’t control).
A great additional benefit is that by focusing more on the present, you are also helping yourself become more mindful and ultimately happier.
TIP: Create ‘open goals’ instead of SMART goals.
A slightly different way of looking at the same problem is to create what are known as open goals, these are open-ended goals focused more on the process than a result. Importantly, open goals are focused on the ‘here and now’, rather than a future objective. They are often exploratory and can be described as “see how well I can do” goals. Some examples of open goals are:
“Exercise every day.”
“Spend time reading a non-fiction book every week.”
“Practice daily mindfulness.”
Research has shown that one of the major benefits of open goals, when compared to SMART goals, is that for those of us who are less goal-focused they improve confidence, are more enjoyable, and participants feel that they performed better.
At the end of the day, I’m not saying you mustn’t include SMART goals in your positive behaviour change plan (you don’t have a plan? Talk to me firstname.lastname@example.org 😊), however, I do recommend at least having a mix of both open and SMART goals.
TIP: Create ‘identity-led’ goals linked to your purpose.
James Clear from Atomic Habits fame calls out the importance of ‘identity-led’ goals and habits, which focus on the identity you wish to create for yourself. i.e., I want to become a runner, rather than I want to run the Sydney Marathon in under 4-hours in 2022 (sounds a bit like an open goal right?).
Part of the trick here is not just to create open identity-led goals, it is the order in which you develop your goals and habits that is critical. If you don’t already know what your identity-led goals are (I didn’t), you first need to figure them out! Once you understand the identity you are creating for yourself, including the goals and strategies that will support that identity, you can then create the habits that reinforce it.
Why is this important? Because habits that reinforce the authentic identity you want to create for yourself are more likely to make you happy, to be easier to complete and make stick!
An oversimplified example of this concept is; if you’ve never been good at swimming, don’t enjoy it, or have access to a pool or live near the ocean, then having a fitness goal to become a swimmer is probably a silly idea. However, if you love the mountains and enjoy biking, why not take up mountain biking as a fitness goal!?
Create open identity-led goals, focus on the present and your progress to give yourself the best chance of success.
Myth 4: You can do it on your own
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent.” John Donne
Sure, we all have willpower and intrinsic motivators that help us drive positive behaviour change. However, you can embed your new habits and routines much faster if you get your community and environment involved.
Let’s look at your community first, and specifically getting some ‘accountability partners’ on board to help.
TIP: Find some accountability partners to help you stick to your plan.
You can hold yourself accountable by using technology (habit trackers, calendar/task reminders, using an app like www.thriverapp.com, etc.) or by using your environment (more on that below). However, one of the best ways to ‘keep you honest’ and hold you accountable to sticking to your plan, is to have an accountability partner from your community.
Here are a few examples of how you can leverage your community to help your new habits stick:
The simplest, and I think easiest way (unless you’re using a tool like Thriverapp 😊), is to ask a good friend to send you a daily ‘check-in’ message. Make sure you agree that you need to respond to their message with either a yes or no, an emoji, or whatever works for you.
Committing to a reply increases the ‘accountability factor’. Alternatively, your friend can phone you, however, a single message takes them less than 30-seconds to send, so they’re more likely to send it (they can even send it from the toilet)
In addition, you can share your plans with a wider group, within your community that you care about. Often, it’s best if you share your plans more than once, and ideally the group you share your plans with is also a group that you are meeting up with quite frequently (this also increases the ‘accountability factor’).*
You can take it to the next level and create what is called a ‘Habit Contract’. Habit Contracts are where you commit to completing a specific action (one you don’t want to complete), or paying money to a cause (ideally a good cause, but one that you do not support), if you fail to complete certain steps in your positive behaviour change plan. This technique relies on punishment as well as accountability.
Finally, you can get a professional coach (email@example.com 😊) who, among other things, you invest in as an accountability partner
*This example draws on the ‘Hawthorne Effect’, which demonstrates that people are more likely to do something if someone is watching. Note the findings from the original study of the Hawthorne Effect have been discounted by some scientists, however, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence showing that the Hawthorne Effect is alive and well.
TIP: Make your environment work for you, not against you
The science tells us that to a large degree your habits and behaviours are a product of your environment. So, this is a great place for us to wrap up debunking these four habit myths.
When it comes to your environment, I want to focus on ’cues’ and ‘frictions’, and specifically how you can use both to plan for potential obstacles and challenges in the future. This gives you the best chance of successfully overcoming those obstacles and challenges when they appear.
I mentioned cues at the start of this article (thanks for still being here!), a cue is a prompt or trigger that reminds you to do something — it’s the first step in Charles Duhigg’s Habit Loop.
A friction is something in your environment that either makes it harder to start, or gets in the way of you finishing, a new habit.
Here are some examples of how to use cues, and reduce frictions, to make your healthy new habits stick:
The second tip in ‘Myth 1: You must be motivated’ was to link your new habit to a current everyday activity, that you are already doing. This creates a cue or trigger out of an everyday activity that prompts you to start your new habit. It sounds simple, and it is, but it’s also one of the most critical steps in using micro habits to create positive change in your life
You can also put any number of visual cues up in your house or office to remind you to start your new habit. Anything from stickers and notes on your bedside table, wall, or fridge, through to reminders on your digital device
Make sure that you prepare and declutter your ‘habit space’, so that when it comes to starting your new habit there is not anything in the way making it harder to start. One super-simple example is if you’re going push ups make sure you have enough floor space available near where you’re going to be prompted to do them
Use your calendar to block out time in your diary for when you’ll start your healthy new habit (align those new micro habits with cues that occur at the time of day that make sense for your new micro habit)
If you’re going to add some form of exercise or fitness into your morning routine, make sure you get your fitness outfit / clothes out the night before.
Make your environment work for you by finding cues and reducing what friction you can.
If you’ve got this far, bear with me for another few minutes! At the risk of stating the obvious, most if not all of the concepts and theory that I’ve shared originates from someone else. As the famous saying goes; “There is nothing new except what has been forgotten.” Marie Antoinette.
When it comes to habit and behaviour change theory there are seven world renowned experts listed below that I’d like to give particular credit to. Their work and theories have provided us with the knowledge and inspiration to create Thriverapp’s unique 3-Step Positive Behaviour Change Program. At the time of writing none are affiliated with Thriverapp or Mindhabit in any way.
W. Timothy Gallwey invented the ‘Inner Game Equation’, popularised by the book The Inner Game of Tennis, first published in 1975.
Sir John Whitmore, known as one of the founders of modern-day performance coaching, the creator of the GROW Model, and author of Coaching for Performance, first published in 1992.
Marshall Goldsmith and specifically his book Triggers published in 2015
Charles Duhigg who is the originator of the Habit Loop and wrote ‘The Power of Habit’ in 2012.
K. Anders Ericsson is the global expert on deliberate practice and the author of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, first published in 2016
James Clear who published Atomic Habits in 2018
BJ Fogg the founder of the Behaviour Design Lab at Stanford University, and the author of ‘Tiny Habits’, first published in 2019. BJ’s work introduced us to his Tiny Habits Recipe which is the main inspiration for Thriverapp’s Habit Stack*.
If you’re interested in learning more about their work, feel free to reach out to me, or simply let your fingers do the ‘reaching out’ on your keyboard.
*Check out Mindhabit's free Happy Habit Stacking Quick Guide here.
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Keep on smiling out (or in) there.