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Four atomic steps to making new running habits stick

If you're having trouble changing your habits, the problem isn't you, it's your system

We’ve all been there–you want to start running in the early mornings, but, despite laying out your clothes the night before and checking the weather app, every time your alarm goes off, you hit snooze. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, has four science-backed steps to making a new habit stick.

“The four laws of behaviour change apply to nearly every field, from sports to politics, art to medicine,” says Clear. “These laws can be used no matter what challenge you’re facing.” Whether it’s committing to regular speedwork or levelling up your nutrition, his four simple steps will have you nailing new habits in no time.

What is a habit?

Clear defines habits as behaviours that have been repeated enough to become automatic, like brushing your teeth or getting dressed. Who doesn’t want getting out the door for their run to be as simple as that? The process of building a habit can be broken into four steps that compose a feedback loop: cue, craving, response and reward.

Make it obvious (cue)

The two most common cues are time and location, and Clear suggests a practice called habit-stacking to start incorporating your new habit into daily life. By attaching the desired habit to other things you regularly do, you can create obvious cues. Habits like “eat better” or “run on my lunch break” are worthwhile, but the goals need specific instructions on how and when to act. Decide exactly when you want to slide your habit into your life.

Clear uses adding a push-up habit to his own life as an example, and it can easily be shifted to one of your running goals. “When I wanted to start a push-up habit, my habit stack was ‘When I take a break for lunch, I will do 10 push-ups’,” Clear says. He soon realized this was unclear–would he do the push-ups before lunch? After?

Clear explains that after a few inconsistent days, he changed his habit stack to “when I close my laptop for lunch, I will do ten push-ups next to my desk.” Get rid of as much ambiguity as possible when planning out how you want to implement your habit.

Habit-stacking formula: After I (current habit), I will (new habit).

Make it attractive (craving)

The best way to make a habit stick is to make it absolutely irresistible. “Habits are a dopamine-driven feedback loop,” says Clear. While scientists used to think dopamine was all about pleasure, they now know it plays a key role in neurological processes like learning, memory and motivation. Clear explains the key takeaway: “dopamine is released not only when you experience pleasure, but also when you anticipate it.”

The anticipation of a reward–not the actual fulfillment–gets us to take action. The more attractive an opportunity is, the more likely it is to become habit-forming. Strategize to pair an action you want to do with an action you need to do. Clear builds on habit-stacking by adding a formula called temptation-bundling.

An example of this could be wanting to watch the news, but needing to fit in your run: 1. After I get my morning coffee, I will go for my run (need). 2. After I go for my run, I will watch the news (want).

Habit-stacking and temptation formula: 1. After I (current habit), I will (habit I need). 2. After I (habit I need), I will (habit I want).

Make it easy (response)

Clear says the most effective way to learn is by practising, rather than planning. To build a habit, you need to practise it. Eliminating as much effort as possible is key to making your habit become part of your daily life. “It’s crucial to make your habits so easy that you’ll do them even when you don’t feel like it,” says Clear. Habits like checking email, scrolling our phones, or watching TV take up so much of our time because they require almost zero effort.

Making your new healthy habit as effortless as possible is key. If you’re hoping to improve your eating habits this season, chopping vegetables on the weekend and having them in the fridge to snack on is an obvious way to simplify this. Setting that running gear out in advance is a great idea, when it’s part of the entire habit-feedback loop and not your stand-alone hope of getting out the door at 5:00 a.m.

When you’re struggling to stick with a new habit, Clear suggests following a two-minute rule. Make your goal to simply get into your exercise clothes, or to walk for two minutes. If you’re done at that point, fine–do it again tomorrow. You can’t improve a habit until it exists.

runner in the morning
Photo: Unsplash/Lia Ikkos

Make it satisfying (reward)

Researchers refer to a cardinal rule of behaviour change: what is rewarded is what is repeated, and what is punished is avoided. Seems obvious, but making a behaviour satisfying vastly increases the chances that you’ll repeat it. There’s a catch: the human brain evolved to want immediate gratification, not delayed rewards.

Photo: Unsplash/Jessica Lewis

We all love the feeling of making progress. A habit tracker is a great way to give yourself an immediate reward. Just like getting kudos on Strava, giving yourself a gold star on the calendar will give your brain a boost, and provides clear evidence of your progress. If you get off track, simply veer back to your habit as quickly as possible. It’s important to give yourself credit for small things–you don’t have to have a great run to earn that gold star, or nail the perfect speed workout.

If you got out the door for a walk, that’s great–added vegetables to your meal, perfect. You’re reaffirming your identity, and taking the steps to cement those habits into place.

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