When it comes to habits, you need to not only design what you’d like to do (New Year’s resolution, new chore, etc.), you need to design the context in which you do it. The options in front of us determine what we do. If you’re at a restaurant and the server hands you a special menu with spaghetti on it, you might order some. If they don’t and that item isn’t on the normal menu, your odds of selecting that same option are practically zero. 

The menu problem shows us that the choice we make of what to eat isn’t as important as the choice of what items show up on the menu. In this example, context matters. The options in front of us guide our decisions. So think about this in terms of your daily life and things you want to accomplish. What options show up in front of you? 

Location

Where you do things matters. If you work in a room with a piano, you’re likely to play more between meetings or in breaks. Same thing goes if you work near exercise equipment. However, when you’re working in your bedroom, the cues aren’t exactly as positive. Should you get a nap in midday? 

Time

The time you do things can become a natural trigger. If you’ve eaten breakfast every day at 7AM, the act of seeing the clock at 7AM becomes a natural trigger for you to go find something to eat. 

Action

What we’re doing often serves as a trigger for something else. For example, when I’m on Youtube at 9:30PM there’s an 86% chance that I stay there for the next 5 minutes. The odds that I get ready for bed are just 4%. Knowing this, I know that I start Youtubing at 9:15. I have already kicked my sleep goal out of the window. 

How can you start your new habit on the right foot?

  1. Design for context: Plan specifically where and when you’ll do an action. Use the behavioral model to see if logically fits. Cleaning the garage after brushing your teeth has you changing locations a bit too drastically to be successful.
  2. Focus on Triggers: So often we get caught up on how motivated we feel. Motivation is variable – it ebbs and flows. Focus on what we can control (our location, the cues we put in front of us. These are things that can get us back on track.
  3. Make it simple: Start with the smallest possible version of your goal. Instead of running 5 miles, start with putting on your running shoes. Any distance you go after that is just extra credit.
  4. Celebrate the wins: When you achieve your new habit for the 1st time, you need to celebrate it! Give yourself a cheer or a fist pump. You’ve earned it and it’s these types of behaviors that will help your root behavior take hold. 

When trying to build a behavior, whether a New Year’s resolution, a new health habit, or a chore around the house, getting started is tricky. Mastering the elements of a behavior and accounting for context gives you all the tools you need to start off the new year on the right foot.

Where you are, what you’re doing, the time of day – these are all examples of context.