Winning by habit change – one nano habit at a time
Twenty years ago if a British cyclist had won a bronze medal, it would have been a cause for celebration, gold medals were virtually unseen, and the idea of a Tour De France win beyond our wildest dreams. In those days it is said that manufacturers were reluctant to sell equipment to the British team to avoid negative associations, and yet today, the team consistently competes with the best in the world - and wins. The turning point is thought to be the embracing of by Performance Director Dave Brailsford of the strategy of the aggregation of margin gains. What this means is that he looked for tiny improvements in many areas, which when aggregated together caused the performance leaps that have led to exceptional results. In this article we look at how individuals and teams can apply this idea, and how the science behind habit building makes a difference to businesses, teams and lives.
Our results are always the result of our actions, and most of what we do is the cause of our habitual behaviours. Our positive habits cause us to produce outcomes in line with what we want, and our negative habits produce the opposite. When we appreciate this, and seek to understand how we form, maintain and change our habits , we can make marginal gains that aggregate into remarkable results. Understanding the anatomy of your habits, as well as understanding 5 simple strategies for effortlessly changing your habits, is now possible due to a body of research that demonstrates how humans make and break habitual behaviour. The New York Times Bestseller - The Power of Habit by Thomas Duhigg summarised the latest behavioural research. Our “Habit Loops’ involve Cue, Craving, Response and Reward. In my work with sales leaders and teams I see that when a person truly understands what the Cues, Craving and Rewards are for particular responses, it is the first step towards change. When I realised that the Cue to nail biting was often the car or football, it brought me a step closer to the solution. Yet until I saw that the reward was a relief from anxious thoughts, and that I would crave that relief as soon as I got into these situations, then I began to understand the response and reward mechanisms for myself.
Highly addictive habits such as nicotine, nail biting and crack cocaine have similar Cue, Craving, Response and Reward structures. Rather that offer a genuine reward, they simply offer a relief from the anxiety that is being stimulated by the cue (which in the case of tobacco and crack is often just the withdrawal symptoms of the drug itself). As you begin to see what your cue is, what is it that you are craving, it soon becomes easy to apply some simple behavioural science to divert yourself into more positive behaviour. In this article I will suggest the 5 S’s (Slicing, Situating, Stacking, Stating and Celebrating) as simple approaches to help you succeed.
In the latest bestseller on habit change, Atomic Habits, James Clear suggests four laws that map the Habit Loop to create change by creating new positive habits:
Cue – Make It Obvious
Craving Make It Attractive
Response – Make it Easy
Reward – Make It Satisfying
To break a bad habit we can inverse these laws to read
Cue – Make It invisible
Craving Make It Unattractive
Response – Make it difficult
Reward – Make It unsatisfying
To make this easy here are 5 tools to help you.
Slicing. Commit to small changes and watch the results compound over time
Like a tanker needs a small adjustment of position to aggregate over time to either hit New York or Venezuela, our habits also have a compounded element to their effect. To make an impact over time a small improvement may be all you need to start the change. Rather than committing to big change, why not look for marginal gains, that can compound over time? If you want more time in the morning, why not wake up 5 mins early. Want to start running? Why not just run around the block once a week? An Atomic Habit is a tiny change that can have a devastating effect, so look for the small that may stimulate big impact. You don’t need to try and create a fitness habit, or become a gym bunny, committing to walk 5 mins a day may be the simple step you need to create a fitter lifestyle. I found that 7 mins a day of exercise, one glass or water, a commitment to a fat burning morning treat, were all small steps that were easy to make, but led to greater commitments, and better results.
Situation. Appreciating your Cues leads to better habits.
When I saw that my willpower was weaker at night, and that football and driving were cues to nail-biting, it became easy to apply some simple changes to my environment to adapt my responses. Putting snacks in the garage made it more difficult to mindlessly eat at night, and gloves in the car (and on my landing) enable me to enjoy Match of the Day without biting my nails to the core. There are likely to be some simple changes you can make to your environment that will make bad habits less attractive, and good habits easier to do. A picture of you enjoying water on the fridge could nudge you to drink rather than eat . Deleting apps from my phone makes it harder to waste time on unhelpful tasks. Even moving time wasting Apps into a time-wasting folder is a step in the right direction in terms of environmental design. So look at your cues to your habits; you’ll find insight to redesign your life to avoid the cues and crush the cravings. You can also look to establish positive cues for what you want to do more of.
As we already have thousands of programmed habits, like brushing our teeth, going to the fridge every time we step into the kitchen, checking our phones as we get out of bed, we can use our existing habits as cues for new habits. “Stacking” new habits on top of existing ones increases our chances of remembering to do the small things that make a difference. When I stacked taking my vitamins on top of taking a drink after exercise, it became easy. Thinking about what you already do habitually, and “stacking” new positive habits on top of these pre-programmes’ routines will make building new habits easy.
Research shows that one very effective tool for making habits stick is and articulating an “implementation intention”. This is a declaration of when, where and what we will do to create the new habit. Research at UCL showed that an implementation intention “When X situation arises, I will do Y behaviour” doubled the likelihood of a control group taking up increased exercise. The same study showed that this practical tool is far more effective that motivational advice, or information intended to demonstrate the benefit of the increased exercise. That means that setting a practical intention is far more effective than educating yourself about the benefits or finding a way to temporarily motivate yourself. If we add what we know about cues and situation we craft our implementation intentions to read:
“ I WILL (behaviour) at TIME (Xpm) IN (Location).”
There has been lots of speculation about how long it takes to form new habits in human populations. In Atomic Habits James Clear suggests it is likely to be dependent on the amount of repetition (frequency) rather than a number of days. A meta summary of the research on at UCL suggests that a figure closer to 66 days is most effective to impact real change. In the 5am Habit, Robin Sharma suggests its useful to break down this 66-day habit building window into 3 distinct phases, Destruction, Implementation and Integration. Since reading this I have found that Celebrating at each stage is a useful tool to motivate me and keep track of my progress. As each stage is only 22 days, it feels like I am always close to a point that I can celebrate a key stage in the habit change I am seeking to implement. By scheduling the end of each stage into my diary and agreeing with myself an appropriate celebration of each stage, it has allowed me to keep track of where I am and celebrate each stage of the process in a significant way. Scheduling into diary what and how you will celebrate is a helpful tool. I invite you to try this simple way of planning to support yourself to make the small changes to your habits that will make a big difference over time.
I trust you have seen the benefit of examining your habits and applying the 5 S’s to effect Atomic Habit change. Slicing, Situating, Stacking, Stating, and Celebrating are simple tools that can help us all eliminate the habits that hold us back, and initiate the habits that can make a positive difference to the lives of ourselves and others.