This is the second in our series unpacking insights from the bestselling book, ‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear. It’s an excellent guide to building better habits and breaking the bad ones to improve your physical and mental wellbeing, relationships, finances and, well, life.
Last time, we looked at Clear’s first ‘law of behaviour’ for building better habits: making it obvious. Here, we look at how you can help new habits stick by making them attractive.
Too good to resist
It’s no surprise that the more enjoyable an experience is, the more we’ll want to do it. After all, humans are hard-wired to seek out comfort, pleasure and survival. So it goes that the more attractive an action is, the more likely you’ll make it a habit… for better or worse. Bad habits are hard to break because they usually make us feel good, if only superficially or temporarily.
A big factor in making habits attractive is engaging your dopamine response. The neurotransmitter that’s released when you feel pleasure, dopamine is at its highest when you anticipate an enjoyable reward. When your dopamine spikes, so does your motivation to act. Junk food has little nutritional value, but that combination of salt, sugar and fat hits all the right notes for many people. Of course, you don’t need all those calories in one go, yet you crave them, and may go out of your way to get them. The anticipation of eating the junk food releases dopamine… but begins to drop once you start tucking in.
The trick to making deliberate new habits stick is to mimic that dopamine hit where it isn’t naturally present. Clear calls this ‘temptation bundling’. It’s all about linking an action you want to do (the reward) with an action you need to do (the new habit, or the ‘cue’).
The formula for sticky habits
In our last article on this, we talked about ‘habit stacking’ as a way of benefiting from the momentum of adding a good habit to an existing one. If you add an extra reward through temptation building, it amps up your motivation to follow through. As a formula, it could look like this:
Habit stacking: “after [current habit], I will [new habit]”.
Temptation bundling: “after [new habit], I will [habit I want]”.
Or with a practical example:
Habit stacking: “after I receive my credit card statement, I will pay it all off in one go.”
Temptation bundling: “after I pay off my credit card in one go, I will eat some chocolate.”
Look how that new habit just got a whole lot more appealing!
Changing your mindset
Because habits become more attractive when we associate them with positive feelings, you can get excellent results by shifting the way you think about certain behaviour. Here are some tips to train your brain into enjoying the ‘hard’ good habits:
- Change the phrase “I have to” to “I get to” – “I get to put more money into my pension each month”.
- Reframe habits to highlight the benefits rather than the drawbacks. A new saving regime, for example, probably involves sacrificing pleasures, but if it’s for an even bigger reward – buying a boat or enjoying an early retirement, say – focus on that.
- Similarly, think about the drawbacks of bad habits – spending more than you need to now, for instance, might delay your future financial freedom, potentially adding years to your retirement age.
- Do something you enjoy immediately before or after a difficult habit. Having a ‘motivation ritual’ – like playing your favourite song before going for a run – means you can use that cue whenever you need a bit of extra encouragement to perform the task.
It’s who you know
As a social species, humans naturally want to be part of a group, so by surrounding yourself with people who have the same habits you aspire to, you’re more likely to take on those habits too. The same goes for bad habits – smokers who hang out with other smokers will find it much harder to quit.
There are three groups of people that we tend to want to imitate:
- the close (family and friends) – proximity has a powerful effect on behaviour
- the many (the tribe) – most people want to walk in step with the crowd
- the powerful (those with status and prestige) – we crave respect, approval and status
That’s why it’s so effective to join a group or culture where your desired behaviour is the norm – by helping you bond and fit in, that habit becomes more attractive. So if you want to stop borrowing and start investing more, find a tribe of sensible savers and shrewd investors and get involved, whether that’s in person, online or even by listening to a podcast.
Better still, build a relationship with a Financial Planner who can coach you through the habits you need to focus on to reach your money goals. At Citywide, we have decades of experience helping people plan for – and achieve – the life they want to live. Book a call to get started or give us a call on 01372 365950.
In our next blog in this series, we’ll look at Clear’s third law of behaviour for building better habits: Making it easy.