Thoughts on Leadership: Habit Formation

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels find me in Northern California, working with our network members around the world to grow our brands and their businesses through service, skills and a well-honed system of execution.

Last week we kicked off “Habits Month,” a four-week excavation of the ideas put forth in James Clear’s book, “Atomic Habits.” In the previous post, we talked about what habits are and how habit formation can create the small wins that lead to positive outcomes. A small, positive action repeated enough times becomes automatic, subsumed into the non-conscious part of our brains and thus, a habit.

In this post, I want to discuss how to build those better habits. After all, we are the sum of our habits. Clear writes: “Your identity emerges out of your habits. Every action is a vote for the type of person you wish to become … Becoming the best version of yourself requires you to continuously edit your beliefs, and to upgrade and expand your identity.”

To create a habit, we must first understand the psychology behind why habits—good and bad—form. Citing famed psychologist Edward Thorndike, Clear writes: “Behaviors followed by satisfying consequences tend to be repeated and those that produce unpleasant consequences are less likely to be repeated.”

This simple statement explains how habits form. It also explains why it’s so hard to form a habit of working out or eating healthy food. It’s much more satisfying to sit on the couch watching TV or eat a sugar cookie than it is to munch on a piece of kale or complete a 30-minute run.

Habits form in reaction to the problems we face. We’re hungry or we’re tired and our brain immediately begins processing the easiest way to solve the problem. As a solution is attempted, the brain then processes how well it accomplished the issue at hand and if satisfied, the brain will seek to repeat this solution the next time. In other words, if you were hungry and you ate a cookie and your brain felt satisfied, the next time you’re hungry, you’ll want a cookie because the brain recognizes this as an easy fix to the problem at hand. The habit is the steps you took to solve a problem in the past repeated in the present.

To form a more positive habit, we must train our brains to process a different, more salubrious solution to the same issue and this solution must somehow be just as satisfying and easy to accomplish. Do you think about brushing your teeth? Do you think about tying your shoes in the morning? These actions have become habits because you figured out how to easily solve the problem of unclean teeth or an untied shoe years ago and now, whenever you see your toothbrush or shoes, the non-conscious portion of your brain takes over and the automatic habit begins. Positive habits like working out or being more productive at work could become just as automatic as brushing or shoe-tying if we form them the right way.

Clear outlines a theory he calls the Four Laws of Behavior Change. He says to create a good habit you must make it obvious, make it attractive, make it easy and make it satisfying. To break a bad habit, you have to make it invisible, make it unattractive, make it difficult and make it unsatisfying. Whenever you want to change your behavior to form a better habit you must ask: How can I make it obvious? How can I make it attractive? How can I make it easy? How can I make it satisfying?

Whenever you want to change your behavior to rid yourself of a negative habit you must ask: How can I make it invisible? How can I make it unattractive? How can I make it difficult? How can I make it unsatisfying?

So, what’s the message? Next week, we’ll dive deeper into the ways the Four Laws of Behavior Change can be applied to the positive habits you’re seeking to create but for now, assess the habits in your life and see which ones are positive and which are negative. This way, when we do explore the system you can use to build better habits next week, you’ll know exactly what habits you want to form and what habits you want to eliminate. Because changing habits isn’t just changing the small actions we perform every day, it’s altering our identity to become stronger, more focused and more habitually successful in accomplishing our goals.

 

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