The If/Then Habit: A Plan With Branches


This is the third part of a series. To better understand this article, read Part 1 and Part 2.

When It's Tough To Stay Disciplined

Once you start building habits, you're going to find situations where it's just not convenient to keep them. 

For example, if one of your root habits is to eat clean food, going away for the weekend with mates can be tough. You have the best intentions, but you're removed from your world of virtuous support, with your grocer and your local Mexican restaurant that knows to hold the rice and cheese. Suddenly a beer or two don't seem so bad, and by the end of the night you're bloated from pizza and booze. Good times.

In a new environment, our habits seem weaker. Life takes more brainwork without the triggers we take for granted.

Know How Much You Depend On Your Environment

Our habits are based on triggers: environmental reminders that create an association between context and behaviour, and come in a few different forms:

  • Time of day (I get keen to go to the gym at 4:30 every weekday)
  • Emotional state (Ever "eat your feelings"?)
  • Location (The moment you step through your front door, the bag, wallet and keys all go exactly where they always do)
  • Preceding event (Notice tension in your body, start breathing deeply and slowly to let it release)
  • Other people (How do you talk to your spouse? Is it the same way that you talk to your children?)

If you respond to a trigger in the same way over and over, and you get a reward for it over and over, your brain creates a pathway that makes the habit automatic.

This picture is a great explanation of the process:

Source:  James Clear

Source: James Clear

Think about any of your automatic behaviours. Every weekday, I get of the train at Southern Cross Station, walk across the road and into Pallet for a coffee without even thinking about it.

Think about how you drove home from work. Do you ever find that you get from the office parking lot to your front door without remembering any part of the journey?

Our habits are more than just processes we can follow to achieve our goals. They are neural paths of least resistance, without which we could not survive the day without becoming mentally exhausted. We need them, and the triggers that set us on those paths.

Take Control With "If/Then" Statements

Of course, without the triggers that get those specific neurons firing, you have to start making choices in an uncertain environment. And what may happen is that the old habits you used to have (which never really go away) may rise to the surface in the absence of your usual environment.

So, what to do? When uncertainty threatens, how do you maintain the routine? Well, firstly, now that you're aware of this trigger-action-reward cycle, recognise that you actually have the opportunity to build a new habit when you're in a new environment.

You are not condemned to slip into savagery, you are able to create whatever habits you want!

You now have the chance to state exactly what you will do in this circumstance. For instance, let's say it's Jill's birthday at work tomorrow (the trigger), and you will be expected to eat the cake that Brian made (the routine), and that this will make Brian and Jill feel good, and stop the rest of the office from feeling awkward (the over-dramatised reward). 

So, create an if/then statement, which helps your habit to have branches. For example:

"If it's someone's birthday at work, then I will chat with them in the morning rather than eating their cake at lunch, so that I still feel good about how I've treated them."

"If I'm travelling and can't find a gym, then I will accumulate 50 pushups and 100 squats when I wake up each morning, so that I still get my exercise in."

"If I'm away from work for two weeks, and I know I won't be able to clear all my emails in an hour like I normally do, then for the first week I am back I will block out fake meetings for an extra hour each day to catch up, so that I slowly regain control of my operating rhythm."

If you like to journal, then write it down in whatever diary you keep your habit notes in. If you don't journal, then writing or speaking your if/then statements is all the more important. Reminders in your phone are also really useful.

Ultimately, your habits are completely within your control. The If/Then approach to habit formation allows to to leverage your natural tendency to create paths of least resistance, and seize the day without letting it seize you!


Over to you. What if/then statements can you come up with to make sure that your healthy habits are maintained when your standard triggers are nowhere to be found?