More on building habits – the importance of friction and gratitude

In my time as a coach, the theme of habits is one that reoccurs as frequently as any. There’s been a number best-selling books in recent years that speak to what we need to know about Habits. My latest discovery is Wendy Wood’s ‘Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick’. In the book, she talks about a couple of concepts that I have found really useful. This learning has been supplemented by the work of psychologist David DeSteno about the role of gratitude in changing behavior.

Key Concepts

Some key concepts if you are looking to adopt, modify or stop a habit:

  • Willpower does not seem sustainable as a way of embedding a habit. It takes too much brain power.
  • Conscious decisions are OK for one off activities (e.g. getting a flu shot) but repetitive actions are important to embed habits (where the activity becomes a motor skill – most easily seen in how most of us drive a car).
  • Creating or removing friction is a critical way of enabling adoption of a new habit – removing foods from your pantry that don’t help when you are trying to change your diet, or adding steps that limit choices (wearing gym clothes on those Zoom calls to be ready to head to the gym). 
    • You can make bad habits harder, and newer habits easier to adopt.
    • Restructuring our environment seems really helpful – hide the temptations, e.g. easier to study in a library than in your family room when the TV is right there.
  • And from the work of David DeSteno, one more thing – gratitude. His research points to the importance of gratitude in many areas of our lives, but specifically as the positive emotion that (if linked to a new habit) creates a likelihood that the behavior will stick.

Applying the concepts

There’s no doubt that Covid has allowed us to create new habits, and there are certainly some of them, we’d rather ditch. This month I started my own habit changing experiment with a dry January, trying to document the factors that are preventing it from becoming a struggle (and a willpower challenge). After almost 20 days, here are my learnings:

  • I’ve framed it as a lockdown reset, to establish new habits for this year and beyond – there’s a big idea in here about establishing how I want to love post-pandemic.
  • I’ve shared my plan with friends and colleagues which helps create an interested support network – this is on its own would not be enough.
  • From a practical perspective, I’ve moved the beer and wine out of our main fridge to increase ‘friction’.
  • I’ve created evening routines around reading, writing, listening to music, and podcast listening, which create a different flow.
  • And I’m trying to feel the gratitude from having more time to read and work on interesting stuff (like this article and the one to come on the best of 2020 music).

For lots of reasons, I’m not a fan of new year’s resolutions, but I see this less as a one month challenge, rather to set a new pattern after the year of Covid when happy hour any hour seemed to feel perfectly normal. Feel free to ask me about how it’s going, and please share any new habits that you are seeking to build.


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