“Habit” is one of those unfortunate words that, through frequency of use, become exclusively associated with negatives. Like the word “consequence.” Habits have consequences. Even good habits have great consequences.
Habits make life easier. More accurately, they streamline behaviors to free you from the heavy mental lifting of making a choice. Habits are “free.” They require very little energy. Think of anything that is a habit for you or a client right now. It’s probably not very hard to do, and you don’t find yourself failing to do it regularly. I’ve had clients with a habit of having two glasses of wine each night, another with a habit of having a bowl of ice cream each night, and another with an exercise habit so strong that he worked out “only” three times in the week one of his parents died.
Welcome to the Power of Habits
Habit creates easy repetition of the behavior(s) connected to the habit. This streamlines our lives so that the tasks we need or want to do repeatedly and in a certain sequence get easier and easier to do.
In the ACE Behavior Change Specialty Certification, Tiny Habits creator B.J. Fogg outlines the process for developing positive habits.
- Pick new behaviors you want to engage in regularly (not ones you “should” do).
- Make it easy to do the behaviors by making them small.
- Make sure there is a prompt to do the behavior. (Fill in the blanks: “After I ___________, I will ___________.)
- Create a method of ensuring positive emotion immediately after doing the behavior.
For example, a client has a goal of “drink more water,” which you’ve mutually agreed is a goal that is both beneficial and one the client is interested in pursuing as she recalls that when she has been more adequately hydrated, she has typically felt much better. This satisfies criteria number 1, above.
Working with the client, you collaborate to map out a strategy to make it easy to engage in the behavior (e.g., ensuring water is readily available and accessible at any and all times throughout the day). This satisfies criteria number 2, above. Next, the “drink water” action is attached to something else the client already does regularly as a prompt and easy trigger. The client works in information technology, so she sends a lot of emails during the work day. As a result, you agree that whenever she sends an email, she will take a sip of water. This satisfies criteria number 3, above. The client can repeat a favorite phrase or positive affirmation to herself. This satisfies criteria number 4, above. For example, the client can say to herself, “Jenny, you are one hydrated girl!”
A quick note on affirmations: Research conducted by Jason Moser, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and neuroscientist at Michigan State University, suggests that when you personalize affirmations by using the first name rather than the pronouns I or me, the third-party inner dialogue creates a distance that is real and makes our brain perceive the affirmation feel as if it is coming from the outside or from another person. As a result, the brain tends to give the affirmation higher status and, thus, it has more impact.
Figuring out how to create a habit of drinking more water is just one small example demonstrating the incredible potential for using small, positive habits to create a massive change. Small habits are easier to develop. By making a high number of relatively easy-to-make changes consistently, a client will develop a trove of new healthy habits. When you add the essential ingredient of time, these new habits will lead to big changes without the actions “feeling” big to the client.
Large-scale behavior change results from changing enough small behaviors over time. And the size of the behaviors goes a long way toward bulletproofing the change process against the many daily challenges that can throw clients off. When energy is low, any task that feels hard or like it requires large energy is one that doesn’t get done.
Now go make some awesome little habits with all your clients and watch them relish the results.
[For expanded study of these topics with CECs, see the ACE Behavior Change Specialist course, and specifically, pages 130-135 in the manual covering the process of tiny habits.]