Why do we so often fail at making positive changes?
Why is it so hard to establish good habits? Even when we really, really want to.
That’s what’s been on our minds lately.
COVID-19 has brought many, many changes to our lives.
These past few months have been filled with much learning and unlearning.
It’s our experience that when things go wrong and get weird, amazing stuff can happen.
We’re forced to pick up the pieces of a shattered creation, feel the pain of it, and then channel our energy into making something new. Also, everything can shift. What was once a “nice to have” is now a must-have. What was unimportant is now the top priority.
It’s an opportunity to sharpen what was dull.
Before COVID and the uprisings, we weren’t thinking too much about communication skills. We’d thought about it a little — as something we might work on in the distant future when life is less hectic and there’s a quiet cabin near a stream we could stay in… or in a future when speaking about anything remotely political or debatable didn’t end friendships — but it wasn’t on the calendar. Now, we’re taking the Compassion Course, a 52-week course to change how we communicate and navigate conflict.
There are weekly practices and homework that are challenging and confronting. And we’re expected to do these in addition to everything else we have to do to keep our lives going.
Like a lot of people out there right now, we’re working harder to make less money. While also learning how to homeschool kiddos. And put the garden beds to use.
We know from years of coaching, that making too much change, too fast, often means it’s doomed to fail.
What is easy is sustainable.
We’re revisiting some strategies for how to make good habits stick so that we stay on track with our homework, and we’re sharing what we’ve learned so far in case it might help others out there too.
These are tidbits from one school of thought. Certainly not the only way of seeing things.
Habit loop of Cue-Routine-Reward
Habits Are Loops
A habit is a sequence of actions that has a clear beginning, middle and end. In behavioral science, these are called loops — a beginning, an action/routine, and an end.
The beginning and end provide the container around the action.
Getting very clear on each step of a loop, and then making the loop as small as possible, will help us build enjoyable, longlasting habits.
For a habit to stick, it needs to have minimal friction. That is, it needs to be easy, obvious, attainable, measurable, desirable and rewarding.
Just keep thinking easy and fun, easy and fun, easy and fun…
A fully formed habit, or loop, has 4 distinct parts:
- A trigger or cue — Something that tells us it’s time for this behavior to happen now.
- Desire — We need to have a sense of “I really want this to happen.”
- Reward — Often another set of behaviors, like making a cup of tea, eating chocolate, or going for a swim.
If we’re trying to create longlasting habits, we want to slice them up into the smallest loops we can — because long sequence chains don’t work — and we want to make the reward mouthwateringly enticing.
So, small and simple + delicious.
Let’s say it’s January, and you’ve made your New Year’s resolutions, and you’ve decided you’re going to meditate every day for 30 minutes because that would be good for you (according to all the experts and smart people). By the third week of January, you’ve stopped. Why? Because thinking you should do something “good for you” is not reinforcing or rewarding enough. Also, you’ve created a long chain loop. It’s too much for too little.
(Side note: Goals or habits with “I should…” as the foundation are asking us to pause and reflect so that when we step forward, we do it with authenticity. Do we actually want this? Or do we think we’re supposed to want it?)
Here’s how a meditation process could look if we made it easy, obvious and attainable: “I’m going to listen to a 5-min meditation that begins and ends with a chime bell. Then I’m going to drink my favorite tea and eat my favorite chocolate.”
- Trigger → Behavior: I’m going to sit on my bed, pick up my phone and earbuds from the bedside table, put in my earbuds, and press play. The meditation begins and ends with a chime bell. When the meditation is over, I will put my earbuds away and then reinforce the behavior with a reward.
- Reinforcement: After the meditation, I will fix myself a cup of my favorite tea and eat a piece of chocolate.
With our communication course, it might look something like this:
- Every day, after lunch, I’m going to sit down at my desk, pull out my notebook where I’ve written down this week’s lesson and homework, set my phone timer for 10 minutes, and I’m going to choose one practice to do. When my timer goes off, I’m going to put my notebook away.
- Then, I’m going to make myself a cup of coffee and eat a square of chocolate.
These steps are simple, specific and follow a repeating pattern or sequence. There is a ritual, a routine, a recipe that is easy to remember and follow.
As parents who cook with our kids, we’re thinking of it like we’re creating a recipe for someone who’s not experienced with baking or cooking. We would never hand them a recipe with a mile-long list of ingredients if we want them to succeed. Likewise, our habit loop (or recipe) needs to be simple and fun.
What Gets Rewarded Is Repeated
Whether it’s a dog, a person, or a parrot, positive reinforcement just works.
We like our treats.
In the language of behavioral science, rewards are called reinforcements because they incentivize (or reinforce) certain behaviors.
To make habits stick, we need to ask ourselves: What can I give myself at the end of the behavior that’s reinforcing?
One way of looking at it is to consider the feel-good neurochemicals.
- Dopamine —
- Motto: “I got it!”
- It can be anything from chocolate, a cup of tea, a Facebook like, 5 minutes surfing on TikTok, 10 minutes of a game on my phone, or my preferred tribal unit (like my favorite team or political party) winning over the other tribe. That last one deserves some caution…and contemplation.
- Serotonin —
- Motto: “I’m the best!” or “I’m good enough that I’m getting respect from a group for which I have respect!” or “We did it!”
- I have achieved something in the eyes of my peers that we all think is good.
- Endorphins —
- The exhilaration of physical success. When we push our bodies to our limits. When we top out.
- Oxytocin —
- Motto: “I am loved.”
- Parent-child, partnership, caregiver-pet, friendships. Love, care, nurturing relationships.
For fitness, the benefits of endorphins (and maybe even serotonin) are built into the loop naturally. We can increase that reinforcement by thinking about how we could bring more dopamine into the loop. Maybe, a favorite snack or treat we can eat in the car on the way home from the gym.
For other personal growth work like courses, mind-training, etc., we’re thinking our strategies are going to be pretty dopamine-heavy:
- a slice of homemade sourdough with fancy butter (a much-loved treat of ours),
- diving into the pool (because we love the water),
- fruit snack (cuz we cannot get enough fruit lately).
If our new habit still isn’t working, it means we’ve chosen a reward that isn’t rewarding enough, so we’ll up our reinforcement to create a better incentive.
Maybe two slices of sourdough… :) Just thinking out loud here…
For us, coaching isn’t just about fitness or movement medicine. It’s also about helping people build lifestyles that are more authentic and meaningful to them.
Before we can coach others into different ways of being, we have to test-drive our strategies first.
We’re still learning.
We mentioned The Compassion Course. It’s too late to join the course, but The Compassion Course Book: Lessons from the Compassion Course is available on Amazon and (probably) your favorite indie book store.
Also, our blog post When Things Fall Apart touches on some similar themes.