45. Why Habit Creation is Overrated & You Need to Create Rituals Instead
Welcome to episode 45 of the Mindful Weight Loss Podcast. I am your host and your coach, Emily Erekuff and today I am talking about habits and why attempting to create them is overrated and why you need to focus on creating rituals instead.
And now, I know this is contrary to what just about everyone preaches these days. Habits are the darling of the self-help world. We're told that they are the key to everything; the key to the better life we're looking to create. And the book Atomic Habits by James Clear spent a I think over a full year on the New York Times Best-Seller List and has sold more than 5 million copies.
And listen, I'm not saying that habits aren't all they are cracked up to be. Habits are incredibly powerful and absolutely necessary to create any kind of change. They are action on autopilot which is incredible because they are a means of creating results with ease. I mean, imagine if you habitually exercised and ate healthy and took really good care of yourself, and meditated. That's what we're all striving for right?
And herein lies the problem. We are so hardwired in our society to seek out instant gratification that we are just so ready to jump to the easy part when the good habit is wired into our brain and we don't have to think about it anymore. And life is perfect and we're done.
BUT that is the END of the story AFTER all the hard work has been done. And that's where, in my opinion, the idea of creating habits is vastly over-rated. We are sold this idea that habits are the easy way to get what we want and that we can hack our way there with a few simple tweaks or a formula. We're given the impression that we can bypass the work that is required to wire in the habit.
Years ago we were told to just do something repeatedly for 21 or 30 days and then it will be a habit, but nobody ever talked about the difficulty of doing the thing over and over again for those 21 or 30 days. And though the knowledge and advice about habits has vastly improved, there is still this idea that the habit is the finish line and we don't focus on the journey we need to take to get there. And yet you cannot skip that journey. You will never get over that hump.
And this way of thinking is so detrimental to us because it encourages us to pin all our happiness on a future that doesn't exist and to take what's happening right now completely for granted. It's not unlike going on a diet in the hopes of losing weight. If I just eat this way for 30 days, I'll lose weight and then life will be perfect.
And yet the thing about the focus on habits in general that I find even more upsetting is that we are chasing mindlessness. We are so excited to get to the place where we are living life completely on autopilot, like a robot.
And again, I'm not saying that habits are bad. Habits are necessary so that our brains don't use up all of our energy just figuring out how to cook breakfast. Automation is a good thing. But as Aesop said "It is possible to have too much of a good thing." And luckily enough you can't just automate yourself to do things.
And so here's the big point I want you to grasp: In order to create a habit; in order to get to this place wherein you mindlessly perform a specific action, you first need to become more mindful about that action. In order for a task to become easy, it first needs to be effortful. Before something can become routine, it must be ritualized.
And so that's my beef, not with habits themselves, but with our pursuit of them. At the end of the day, we need to stop focusing on the outcome and the destination, but instead focus on the process and the journey.
And that's why I say that you need to focus on creating rituals instead. Instead of thinking that we can just keep our heads down and hack our way to a new habit, we need to plan to use more awareness and more energy to perform the action we want to automate.
A ritual is something that we observe and perform very carefully, even meticulously. Wikipedia defines ritual as "a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, actions, or objects, performed according to a set sequence." Other definitions speak of performing a sequence of actions with ceremony - i.e. with sacredness and awe. There is more attention to be brought to a ritual, not less. It's like the opposite of a habit.
And if we love habits for their ease, we dislike rituals because of their difficultly. Performing a ritual requires effort and our brains don't like to expend effort. Effort is energy - a resource that must be protected at all costs.
And that is why when we create a ritual that we eventually want to automate, we need to start very, very small. That is the other mistake we make when we try to create habits. We attempt to create full-blown behaviors instead of small, precise actions. And that's in part because we don't anticipate or give credit to the awareness and effort that is required. In the book Thinking Fast and Slow, author Daniel Kahneman explains that when we do something that doesn't come naturally to us it demands a continuous exertion of effort. He says, "The often-used phrase "pay attention" is apt: you dispose of a limited budget of attention that you can allocate to activities, and if you try to go beyond your budget, you will fail."
This is why it's not easy to simply create a habit of say eating mindfully. That might seem relatively easy compared to something like exercising because there's less to do. You don't have to change your clothes or decide what exercise to do. You're going to eat anyway, so you're only adding mindfulness and attention to the equation. Except that the focus and attention is draining.
So instead of setting the intention to eat mindfully during your entire meal, you're much better off to create a small, precise action like noting the texture of your food after you take your first bite. And that's it, until that ritual becomes less effortful and you don't feel overwhelmed to add on. And this part is really critical. Common advice tends to use only half of this wisdom.
I'm sure you've heard that the trick to getting yourself to exercise is to just get yourself to do that first step, such as changing into your exercise clothes. And then since you have them on you figure you might as well go for that jog or whatever it is you intend to do, and so you do. But this can backfire. As far as habits and rituals are concerned, it's detrimental to bite off more than we can chew and if you exhaust your brain it's going to remember and encourage you to avoid the behavior the next time around.
And so again, you are probably better off to just change your clothes and that's it, until that becomes a habit and you can add another small step - something like walking around the block, or maybe just walking out the door . Seriously, the easier the step, the easier it is for your brain to encode the behavior such that it does turn into a habit.
The other key when you do begin to create a ritual behavior is to anchor your new, desired action to another action that is already a habit. For example, if I want to create a ritual of journaling in the morning, I should look to the morning habits I already have in place - things like showering, getting dressed, making coffee and breakfast. For me journaling would work very well once I've made coffee, and so my coffee habit can be used to anchor or give foundation to my new journaling habit.
And I'm going to remember to get as small and specific as possible about both my new ritual and my old habit. Instead of planning something like, "After I make my coffee, I will write in my journal" I'm going to say "After I take my first sip of coffee, I'm going to sit down with my notebook" And again, that's as far as I need to take it initially in order to start wiring those two actions together in my brain. And ideally the ritual will build somewhat naturally from there. In a few days, I might work up to writing just one sentence each day, later on maybe a paragraph.
And the nice thing is that when you build a ritual like this, you can always revert to a smaller action or even to the minimum action when you're short on time but don't want to lose the power of the routine that you've created. Maybe you work up to writing a few pages in your journal each day, but on those days when you are running late you just write one sentence after that sip of coffee. That way you don't loose the connection between those two foundational actions.
The final tip I want to share with you is that your identity and values are extremely helpful influencers of your actions. And I know it's been a while since I've talked about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy on the podcast, so to refresh your memory, CBT teaches us that our thoughts generate our emotions which then motivate our actions. And in this case the concept you have of your own identity and your values are simply thoughts that ultimately lead to your actions. For example, it's important for me to be strong. I like thinking of myself as someone who is strong. That thought generates a desire in me to maintain or increase my strength. And that desire motivates me to lift weights.
In Atomic Habits James Clear gives the example of how identity can influence the decision to stop smoking. When offered a cigarette, one person answers “No thanks, I’m trying to quit.” And the other says, “No thanks, I don’t smoke.” In the first answer you can hear the conflict yet in the second you can hear the commitment. The second person has made a very clear decision about the person she is, and as such the action of smoking is completely taken off of the table. This is also incredibly helpful to our brains because there's no wasting energy on making a decision about whether to accept the cigarette or not. It's just not an option.
So when you consider the rituals and habits you wish to create, consider too the kind of person you want to be and then make a point to start thinking of yourself as that kind of person. I'm not big on mantras by themselves, but I think they can be very impactful when we pair them with actions and this is a fantastic opportunity to do just that.
For example, with my morning journal ritual, remember the habit is "After I take my first sip of coffee, I'm going to sit down with my notebook." And let's say the reason I want to journal in the morning is to connect with myself and acknowledge my feelings. I can create a simple mantra to use along with my new habit to increase my motivation to take action. And so, once I say "After I take my first sip of coffee, I'm going to sit down with my notebook." I'll follow that up with, "I feel good when I start my day connecting to myself and my feelings."
So remember, focus on creating rituals rather than habits. Plan to be more mindful than less when you create a new behavior. Focus on small steps and anchor your new action to one that is already established as a habit for you.
And if you want to learn more about this, I do agree that Atomic Habits is a good book, but I think Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg is even better. Tiny Habits really does a wonderful job of really breaking down the habit or ritual process and there is a palpable tone of positivity and encouragement throughout the book that really inspired me. A quote from the author that I absolutely love and that really encapsulates what the book is all about is "I change best by feeling good, not by feeling bad." To my mind that is simply the best guiding principle you could possibly have when you're doing this work.
I hope you enjoyed this episode and I will see you next week!