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Habit Hacking

Sunday 28th January saw us do another amazing get-together for the Drive Against Depression Summer Drive Day down the Great Ocean Road here in beautiful Melbourne Australia. It was so nice to see everyone especially as I’ve not been able to make the last two of these events and I’ve really missed them in my life.

I asked the question "How many of us here today have either set ourselves a new years resolution or have habits and things that we want to get into... like smoking less, eating healthily, or going to the gym?"

Below is what I shared with this group of legends...

Unfortunately, the research shows that most people struggle with making new behaviors stick and this is because they fail to turn them into habits. If we just rely on motivation and willpower, we will ultimately fail because just like a muscle, willpower will just run out of steam!

When researchers looked into the timing, it’s the second Friday of the New Year when most people quit, and in fact, by February 14 Valentine’s Day over 95% of people (reportedly) have quit their New Year’s resolutions.

So why did I tell everyone that, well, partly because knowledge is power, and if you know the reason for failure you can find the pathway to success. But also because I want to do away with the Guilt and Shame people feel when new behaviors don't stick! However, it’s nothing to feel ashamed about becasue our bodies have evolved to respond well to actions that give us instant gratification but not delayed gratification.

If you think about it when you ran away from Sabretooth Tiger, you would have felt great, because you were alive, and when you celebrated with your tribe back at the village by dancing and hugging, your brain would have released neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin straight away, which in turn would have made us feel amazing and re-inforced behaviors that kept us alive! Or when you foraged for your food, and you found some, when you ate it you released Dopamine,'d feel great. So our brains evolved to release neurotransmitters that made us feel good when we actually achieved something that was positive for our survival.

However, in today’s world, a lot of the habits that we need to focus on, and that we struggle with, are all about delayed gratification. That salad rather than the donut that you eat won't make you feel so amazing in the moment, but it will help the weight loss that you are trying to achieve. Getting out of bed on that cold wet morning for that run you promised yourself, might not make you feel great in the moment, but it will help you on your journey to getting healthier.

Many people have looked into habit formation and found key elements of how to form new habits and make them stick. Charles Dughig (Power of Habit) and James Clear (Atomic Habits) are just two of them. They said for any habit to form you need:

Charles Dighig 1. Trigger

2. Action

3. Reward

James Clear

1. Cue

2. Craving

3. Action

4. Reward

Basically, they are both saying (in their own way) that to make a habit stick, you basically need it to be rewarding so that it triggers the Dopamine release process in our brain! We need it to feel good in the moment...So how do we do this if the thing we know we need to do isn't yet intrinsically rewarding to us and we are "in the grind"?

Well, we can hack it by "Temptation Bundling"...This is where you do something that you really like and bundle it with something that you know you should do but doesn’t give you that instant gratification. An example of this temptation bundling was seen by a computer coder in the US, who loved to watch Netflix, but he hated to get on his exercise bike! So he wrote himself some code that only allowed Netflix to work on his TV when the pedals of his exercise bike turned. This allowed him to enjoy Netflix (reward) while he was moving his legs (action).

Now you don’t have to be a computer coder to take advantage of this little hack. You just need to find something that you like to do that you can do while doing something that you may not like to do so much in the moment, but you know you need to do it in the long run. Other examples would be reading a gossip magazine while you’re on the elliptical or going to catch up with a good friend at the walking track rather than the cafe.

Doing things that you enjoy doing with something that you know you should do is a great way of making sure you get that dopamine hit and feel that instant gratification when you’re doing something that will also give you the delayed gratification of progress. For habits to stick, there needs to be a pleasurable reward at the end of it. Remember, as human beings we are efficiency-seeking animals, therefore, if you want to make a habit stick, make it easy, and if you want to break a bad habit, make it hard! e.g only have healthy food in the pantry and make it a big event to go out and have the celebration donut.

So to make sure that a habit is formed we must set a Plan that:

  1. Makes it obvious (Trigger) - Leave that guitar that you want to practice in the middle of the room, not hidden in a cupboard somewhere!

  2. Makes it attractive (Craving) - Do the practice session with a really good friend.

  3. Makes it easy (Action) - Do it for just a few minutes over Zoom, rather than having to travel anywhere to get the practice in.

  4. Makes it satisfying (Reward) - After the session, treat yourself to your fav coffee (just skip the pastry)

Pro tip… make sure that you are making a commitment to stick to the plan with somebody who cares about you, and keeps you honest and accountable, but also if you were to fall off the horse and not do it, they’re there to support you to get back on track, not to feel shame and guilt, but to help you get back into what you know you want to be doing.

So if there’s something that you want to do this year...

Give yourself a powerful reminder in your house or car or work, remove barriers and make it easier and think about how you can give yourself some instant gratification while you’re waiting for that delayed gratification that may come later.

Get bundling and get out there...good luck.

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