James Clear's book, Atomic Habits, is chock full of practical tips for creating sustainable change in our behaviors. I strongly recommend this read for anyone wanting to create a new habit or eliminate an old, nagging one.
James describes habits as the "compound interest of habit change." Every little bit we choose to do every day adds up in a big way over time, either to strengthen or to weaken us.
Most of us know how we want to act and what we need to do in order to be happy and healthy, but we don't know why we fail to stick with these positive behaviors. This is where James comes in to teach us how to commit. He outlines simple ways we can make good habits (1) obvious, (2), attractive, (3) easy, and (4) satisfying; as well as ways to make our bad habits (1) invisible, (2) unattractive, (3) difficult, and (4) unsatisfying. Some of his most interesting recommendations are as follows:
(1) Focus on the process. While goals are related to the results you'd like to achieve, systems are the processes that lead to these results. Goals are good for setting direction, but systems are necessary for making progress. James says, "fix the inputs and the outputs will fix themselves." In other words, we can improve the likelihood we will commit to our desired habits, if we create a system that supports those behaviors.
(2) Connect the habit to our identity. James says that most people begin the process of habit change by focusing on the thing they want to achieve, but the ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of who we are. It's one thing to say "I'm the type of person who wants this" versus "I'm a person who is this." Every action we take is a vote for the type of person we want to become; and the more we repeat the habit, the more self-trust we will develop. However, James warns us against making any single aspect of our identity an overwhelming portion of who we are so that if we lose that thing (i.e., a vegan who develops a medical condition that forces him/her to eat meat), we'll lose ourselves.
(3) Be specific and clear. Make a thoughtful plan of exactly what we want to do, when, and where. "When situation X arises, I will perform Y." We can also build a new habit on top of one we're already doing (i.e., do 10 squats before we shower). He also suggests we start small so we don't take on more than we can handle because, as he explains, missing once is an accident, but missing twice is the start of a new habit. It's all about the 1% improvement we do a thousand times.
A kindred spirit of mine, James also references my favorite social psychology formula in reference to behavior change: B(behavior) = P(person)*E(environment). He provides suggestions for how we can shape our environment with the people/things/arrangements that support our desired behavior. For instance, we can join a group with the people who are already behaving in the ways we want to behave. We can also create a home environment that makes sticking to our habits easier (i.e., not keeping any junk food in the house). We can also use techniques to help us reframe our beliefs so they support the benefits of our desired behaviors, rather than the drawbacks. For instance, instead of saying "I have to" do something, we can change that thought to "I get to" do it, which is much more motivating. Lastly, he encourages us to direct our efforts toward areas that both excite us and match our natural, predisposed skills, so that we are aligning our ambitions with our personality and abilities. We don't have to build habits that everyone tells us to build, but we can choose ones that are important to us.
Ultimately, habit change is about taking action towards the person we want to become. We can think about this all day, but until we begin, we'll continue to remain stuck. Habit change is about setting up an effective system which makes it easy to start and sustain action.