- Our environment shapes our behavior, including our habits.
- If we repeatedly support a desirable habit, it is likely to eventually rub off.
- A small change in a routine can unmoor us from current patterns and spark new ways of thinking and acting.
Habits science has just a few fundamental principles, but there are some ways to apply those principles that you may not have heard before. Use these six savvy strategies to create a vibrant and fulfilling life that truly resonates with your values and aspirations.
1. Let your environment do the work.
Our behavior, including our habits, is shaped by our environment. If you repeatedly put yourself in an environment that supports a desirable habit, eventually, it will rub off.
For example, I've been taking my six-month-old to baby singalongs at the library several times a week. After almost two months of doing this, I started picking up books for myself while there. Our whole family is reading more books because we're showing up at the library so often. It took a while before this effect kicked in, but eventually, it did.
2. The type of people who... are also the type of people who...
I just said that our environment shapes our behavior. A big part of our environment is the behavior and values of the other people around us.
Try completing these sentences:
- People who hike probably have other good habits and values, like _______.
- People who attend library singalongs with their children probably have other good habits and values, like _________.
Maybe hikers are more environmentally-friendly and adventurous or eat more healthily on average. Maybe people who attend the library also support their child's learning in other fun or interesting ways. You can use these connections to graft habits onto other habits by spending more time with people with particular constellations of traits, values, or habits.
If you want to travel more, where can you associate with people who travel more? If you want to be more adventurous or community-minded, where can you associate with people who already live that way?
3. Think beyond one particular topographical manifestation of a behavior.
The topography of a behavior is what it looks like on the surface. Here's an example of how this can trip us up: For a long time, I've been telling myself the story that I don't read for pleasure anymore. I have thoughts like, "I can't imagine ever reading for pleasure again while I have young children." However, in my mind, the only thing I was counting as "reading for pleasure" was reading a novel.
When I think about it logically, I read for pleasure all the time. For instance, my seven-year-old and I read a book about wings this week. It was about all the different types of wings, from insects to the Wright brothers, and reading it was in fact very pleasurable. My story that I don't read for pleasure anymore is actually a false story because I'd become hung up on the image of reading a novel.
4. Radically abandon one particular topographical manifestation of a behavior.
An example of this that many people can probably relate to: I know that in my early 40s, I really should work on preserving and increasing my muscle mass and strength. However, I also have a strong aversion to doing that indoors at a gym. Instead of continuing to wonder how I could make myself do that, I could rule out the gym and find more naturalistic ways to achieve the same ends.
If you can't get yourself to completely mentally give up on one form of a habit, then try a time-limited thought experiment. For example, think, "I'm not going to step foot in a gym or use home gym equipment in the next six months, so how am I going to increase my muscle mass and strength?"
5. Reframe what your desired habit and outcome actually is.
This point dovetails with the last two, but I wanted to call it out specifically for people just skimming the headings: If a habit feels like something you should do but also feels hard or undesirable in some way, then try reframing what your desired habit or outcome actually is. For example, I want good functional fitness for the next 50-plus years. I want to be able to lift, twist, squat, and do the other elements of functional fitness that are necessary for full and independent living into my 90s. This is a much clearer and more motivating way of stating my goal than saying I want to preserve and increase my muscle mass and strength.
We often feel ashamed and ambivalent about a habit when it isn't consistent with some of our values, even if it is consistent with other values or desired outcomes. Being inside a gym isn't how I want to spend my life.
6. Just disrupt your routines. Shake things up and give your habits a good old-fashioned stir.
There's solid evidence (which I summarize in my book Stress-Free Productivity) that changing your routines, even very slightly, will improve your creativity and shake up your habits more broadly. If you're interested in some new habits, try any small change in your routines and curiously observe what naturally happens.
Try grocery shopping at a different store, for example—or eat one meal outside each day, wear one item of yellow clothing every day, or sit in a different spot in your house when you get home from work each night. Pick anything that appeals to you that represents a change in your current daily or weekly routine. Then, let what happens happen.
Allow yourself to be interested and surprised at how a small change can invigorate your creativity, thinking, and energy. A tiny change in a routine can unmoor you from your current patterns of thinking and acting and spark new ways.
Boyes, A. (2022). Stress-Free Productivity. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/645534/stress-free-productivit…