(Hint: it’s Habits). We all know that having the right habits makes our lives easier. But why are good habits so hard to develop?
I love new beginnings, and (as I’m sure you’ve noticed) I love learning all the science-y reasons for why humans behave and think the way we do. That’s why I’ve devoted the first full month of this new endeavor to exploring the foundational questions of why loving your home matters and the significance of figuring out what your vision is for your home and life.
Today and for the foreseeable future, we’ll be addressing the many, many how’s involved in creating a home you can be proud of. And, true to my nerdy, research-loving nature, we’re kicking it off with some science.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint
We’re used to thinking about habits in the context of health, fitness, and finances. But we don’t really think about habits in terms of caring for our homes.
What I see so often (and which I’ve done more times than I can count) is some variation of a cleaning spree (or “rampage cleaning” as I like to call it). We finally get so fed up living with the mess and not being able to find things we need that we just snap. (Or, the in-laws are due in town for the holidays next week and the guest room is a nightmare).
So we go full-force for three days and nights tidying and cleaning the hell out of everything in our path. And the house looks great! …for a few days. Once we fall back into our normal routines (or the in-laws leave), the clutter creeps back in and the cycle resumes. Sound familiar?
We’re doing it all wrong (clearly)
According to James Clear (the author of Atomic Habits, a book which I will be quoting a lot throughout this post), this happens because we’re focusing on the wrong thing: “We think we need to change our results, but the results are not the problem. What we really need to change are the systems that cause those results.”
Unless we address the bad habits that caused the mess in the first place, our homes will never stay tidy for long.
Motivation is important because it highlights our desire to change, and concrete goals give us a direction in which to move. But only focusing on the goals will never lead to long-term change. We must also develop systems (read: habits) that are manageable enough to practice regularly. That’s the meaning of Clear’s Atomic Habits: “a regular practice that is not only small and easy to do, but also the source of incredible power.”
So the key is to figure out how we can harness that incredible power to make managing our homes as effortless as possible.
Anatomy of a habit
But what actually is a habit? Sure, it’s a thing that we’ve done so many times that it’s become automatic. But why do we do it in the first place?
Clear states: “All behavior is driven by the desire to solve a problem…the purpose of every habit is to solve the problems you face.” In this context, a problem is either the presence of something you don’t want or the absence of something you do want.
Your brain follows the same 4-step pattern when it encounters a problem:
1- Cue: When you (consciously or subconsciously) notice the problem.
2- Craving: When you desire a change of circumstance (to gain a good thing or get rid of a bad thing).
3- Response: The thought or action that occurs in an attempt to satisfy the craving.
4- Reward: When your response delivers the desired outcome.
Rewards are what enable your brain to remember how to successfully solve a particular problem. If your response was unsuccessful and you received no reward, you’re less likely to perform that same action again (and if you experienced a negative consequence, your brain will work to avoid that outcome in the future).
When you understand the mechanics of why and how we form habits, you unlock the power to effectively change your behavior.
Framework for change
From this “habit loop,” Clear created a framework of techniques we can use to develop successful habits. And successful habits = effective behavior change. They are:
1- Make it obvious (cue)
2- Make it attractive (craving)
3- Make it easy (response)
4- Make it satisfying (reward)
Often, we tell ourselves that we’re going to start a new habit, but we don’t take the necessary steps to help ensure we’re successful. Rather than lecture you on the ins and outs of the above steps, let’s explore them using the example of starting a yoga habit.
Desired habit: I want to do yoga daily
1- Make it obvious
- Use a trick called habit-stacking, where you tie the new desired habit to a preexisting habit.
- Example: After I feed the cat in the morning, I will do 5 minutes of yoga.
- Add visual cues to your environment so you’re prompted to remember.
- Example: Lay my yoga mat out on the living room floor in the evening.
2- Make it attractive
I think we tend to skip this one with habits that we want to do for the right reasons. Isn’t it enough that I desire to do yoga because I know it will improve my strength and flexibility? Well, probably not, or you’d already be doing it. Instead, make it attractive in the moment to help you get started.
- Try temptation bundling. This can look like habit stacking, but instead of tying a new behavior to a preexisting neutral behavior, you perform the new habit immediately before (or simultaneously, depending on the activities) doing something you want to do.
- Example: Before I enjoy my morning coffee (a want), I will do 5 minutes of yoga (desired habit).
- Join a group where your desired behavior is the norm. (Especially if you know you need external accountability to stick to your goals).
- Example: Attend yoga classes at a studio near your home or work.
- Talk and think about your desired habit in positive terms. Habits are all about associations, and associations are determined by your mindset. Change the words you use, and your mindset follows.
- Example: Instead of thinking “ughh, I have to do yoga now so I can get some damn coffee,” change the mental conversation to “I get to do yoga now so I can keep my body healthy and start my day with a calm mind.”
3- Make it easy
We are biologically driven to “be lazy and do what’s convenient” (I feel seen). Stop fighting against nature by trying to adopt an insanely difficult habit. We like a challenge, but not one that’s too difficult. Decrease the number of steps your habit requires, and reduce the friction it takes to start.
- Use the two minute rule, which suggests that you downsize new habits so they take no longer than two minutes.
- Example: Don’t start your daily yoga habit with an hour-long flow session. A full body sun salutation sequence can be done in two minutes, so start there.
- Prime your environment: If you have to move furniture out of the way to fit a yoga mat in your living room, you’re less likely to do it at all.
- Example: Find an obstacle-free space where you can just lay out the mat (ideally, the night before).
- Automate your habits using technology or with a one-time purchase that will make it easier to do. If you have to pull up YouTube, search for the type of yoga video you want, and wait for it to load, you’ll never even start in the first place.
- Example: Download an app where you can pre-load your favorite sequences, schedule them on different days of the week, and tell the app to remind you when it’s time to start. That way, actually doing the habit requires no in-the-moment decision making from you.
4- Make it satisfying
Even when we know a thing is good for us, if it doesn’t feel good immediately, we have a hard time feeling motivated to do it. Again, blame your brain. We are literally wired to seek out immediate gratification — makes sense when survival was our only objective, but it’s a real problem in our current world where many things that are immediately gratifying are also really bad for us. So, how can you develop a good habit when it can take months or years to see the benefits?
- Reinforce good habits by manufacturing immediate pleasure, and making it feel satisfying as soon as you’re finished.
- Example: Upgrade your wardrobe. Invest in those super soft and flowy yoga clothes that feel amazing. After you’ve finished your session, make it a point to notice how great you feel — and say so: “That felt fantastic! My body feels awake and my mind is so calm now.” Your brain believes the words you say — so use them wisely.
- You can also track it. This helps you focus on the process of the habit (rather than the far-off result), as well as creates a visual cue that feels satisfying to your brain. (You know, like that feeling of accomplishment you get when you cross an item off your to do list).
- Example: Hang up a wall calendar and mark an X through the days you successfully complete your yoga habit. Now your brain wants to keep up that streak and get those marks! (or take note from grade school teachers and get yourselves some gold stars)
- Relax your standards, but not too much. You’re going to miss a day. Life happens, you get sick, you go out of town. Missing once is not the problem. But make it a goal not to miss twice.
- Example: Even if you pull a muscle in your leg and you can’t do a full body sequence, just do something during your habit time, like neck or arm stretches.
The true goal is to “master the habit of showing up”.
By employing some or all of the above strategies, we greatly increase the likelihood that we will do the habit repeatedly. And that’s ultimately what solidifies an action into a habit. It’s not about time, it’s about frequency. If you do something once a week, it will take much longer to make it an automatic habit than if you do something once a day, or several times a day. So while it’s important to not hold yourself to an impossible standard (“I will do this perfectly, everyday, forever!”), it’s essential to show up more often than not — even on your bad days.
Great, but what does this have to do with tidying?
You guys, there’s a lot to habit science, and I thought it was important to establish the habit-change framework all at once. And, frankly, I couldn’t think of great “home habit” example that made sense to illustrate all of the above techniques, so I chose yoga because it does fit them all. (Also, I’m currently restarting my yoga habit. Write what you know!)