Boost Your Habits by Asking These 4 Simple Questions
2021 is on; resolutions are spreading all over the maps. The goal is clear: you want to kick-start a new habit.
Anyway, it’s easy to fall off the streaks, so you don’t want “just to start “ — you want to persist. And let me tell you, the statistics are daunting:
81 to 92 percent of New Year’s Resolutions are failures.
I feel you, no-one wants to stumble upon the same stone. In a moment, I’ll show you four questions to help you design a habit that sticks.
These questions emerge from dozens of research around how habits are formed — especially what makes them sustain over time. But first, it’s essential to know the scientific context behind the wall.
The Science of How Habits are Formed
The fundamental essence of habit is that it occurs automatically.
You want to read the book every day without putting too much effort into opening the page. You want to exercise without a second thought.
The less the willpower you need to maintain a behavior — and the more you do it — the more it becomes a habit. And as proposed by James Clear in “Atomic Habits” here are the four components that drive a habit:
Cue → Craving → Response → Reward
You experience this daily. The buzz from your phone (cue) creates an impulse (craving) that urges you to peek in the information, so you open your phone (response) and satisfy your curiosity by knowing that your crush has just sent you a text message (reward).
Change the cue with the smell of doughnuts, and you’ll end up queueing at the nearest Krispy Kreme. Or let me give you an example of a good habit:
Cue: being stressed at work → Craving: want to ease the mind → Response: brief meditation → Reward: acquire a sense of clarity.
When the four components are in, a habit will rise flawlessly; break any of it, the reverse will occur.
But don’t worry, here’s the walkthrough: Pick any habit you want, then ask these four questions. Once you’ve got the answers, building good habits would be your second nature.
Question#1 → Cue
What is the Specific Thing You’ll Do and When Exactly Are You Going to Do it?
The brain works in algorithms: If(A), Then(B); If(see a snake), Then(run like crazy). When starting a new habit, try to make it crystal clear about the “If” and “Then” you’re about to do.
For example, rather than saying, “I’ll exercise every evening,” make it more precise, like “After I take my work shoes off, I’ll change and jog for 20 minutes.”
It’s also better to say, “Every morning, I’ll meditate for five minutes right before I open the laptop” than “I will meditate once a day.”
The shreds of evidence are absolute. Formulating a plan for when and where to exercise has been shown to enhance habit compliance up to 240%. Being more specific with the planning was also found to increase one’s likelihood of getting a flu shot, voting for election, and achieving goals in general.
Make the cue obvious enough, stick it with the habit you desire, then you’ll be ready to rock.
How Can You Make it More Attractive?
The school was boring. Nevertheless, it was also the thing I had always looked forward to. Why?
Not because of the mundanity of lectures after lectures I needed to partake — but because of the euphoria brought by the social dynamics which came afterward.
Similar to this: “Wanna boost your motivation for work?” → Straight advice: “Have a crush on your coworker.”
Of course the advice itself isn’t practical, but you get the point. You can make a less desired behavior more appealing by strapping it to a more desired behavior. Psychologists coined the term “Premack’s Principle”.
This principle is powerful to make your habit looks more attractive.
For example, working out is surely less desirable than bingeing your favorite shows on Netflix. But if you combine both, i.e., you can only watch Netflix after doing two sets of push-ups, then workouts will be the thing you look forward to.
Or maybe you hate to jot down your spending record every night. Solve this by making it a prerequisite before buying the things that you want.
Link the action you need to do with the action you want to do; then, you’ll be more likely to do it.
Question#3 → Response
Can You Do It Everyday for The Rest of Your Life?
If the answer is no, then lower the bar.
If you can’t bear running 30 minutes every day, make it 15. Still hard enough? Cut it down to 5 frickin minutes a day.
Well, maybe the notion “every day for the rest of your life” is a bit of exaggeration. Your habits might change over life’s courses, and there will be days when you have to break the streak anyway.
Nonetheless, this doesn’t wipe out the functionality: The more uncomfortable for you to say “yes” upon the question above, the harder it will be to sustain the habit.
And sustainability is the life-and-death of habits.
Every outcome you’d get out of a habit — name it health, wealth, or happiness — are the results of a compounding effect over time. It will be useless to grind hard, but then to quit too early; your goal is to stay in the game for the longest.
And Here’s the math: You only need to improve 1% every day to get 37 times better over a year (1.01³⁶⁵). Just imagine if you can maintain and grow the habit for 2, 5, even 10 years to come.
So, let say you want to improve serenity through a meditation habit. Rather than squeezing your brain for 30 min a day (only to stop after a month), start with 3 min chunk and improve it slowly afterward.
The less energy a habit requires, the more likely it is to persist. And if it persists, it can grow and produce.
Question#4 → Reward
How Can You Make it Rewarding?
“What the heck is going on with my brain?” one might ask. “Why is it so easy to jump into bad habits but so hard to build a good one?”
Two words: Immediate Reward
Name it Facebook, alcohol, fast food, or Bruno Mars — they’re addictive because they give you satisfaction right away you’re using it. Conversely, the reward of good habits like learning a new language, writing, or investing occurs mostly long in the future. They offered a delayed-type of reward.
Eat healthy today, and you’ll be less likely to grow cancer 15 years from now; keep up the good work, and you’ll get paid a month after.
Our world has changed a lot in the last hundreds of years, but our brain isn’t much different from Sapiens living 200.000 years ago — it still prefers immediate rewards. Food, sex, or social likings give you instant satisfaction because these were crucial in our past survival. (P.S. They’re actually still important, only now they come in a more potent form like fast food, porn, social media, etc.).
The point is, it’s crucial to think of ways the good habits can be rewarding — not just for the future, but for the sake of doing the activity itself.
Working-out bores the hell out of me, so I try to make it fun by following a song’s beat whenever I do my reps (not to mention dancing around like crazy sometimes). Hence, if you want to build a reading habit, start by reading the book you love until you love to read.
Reward is the mother of habit. It teaches your brain to repeat the same action in the future.
Too many people fall into the trap of thinking that habit is all about willpower. No, it’s not. It is the design that matters.
Set out the cue, make it attractive, easy, and rewarding — then building good habits won’t be as hard as you think.
“Time magnifies the margin between success and failure. It will multiply whatever you feed it. Good habits make time your ally. Bad habits make time your enemy.” — James Clear