Four ways to make a new habit stick

‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit’ – Aristotle


Two months into 2015 and how are those new year’s resolutions holding up? Have you finished your manuscript yet? Lost all the Christmas weight? Managed to quit smoking? Or curb your impulsive spending habits?

If you’re anything like me, chances are your iron-clad resolve to kick the bad habits and usher in the good ones, has slowly but surely waned.

No I haven’t gotten anywhere near finishing my script yet. And yes, I keep emptying my bank account for awesome cushions and cookbooks. Sigh. I know I want to get published and save more, but I can’t quite put my finger on how.

So this got me thinking about habits. How are they formed? What hard-wires them into our brains? Scientifically speaking, how do we go about changing?

With some digging around, I think I’ve got just the answers.

Where habits fit into our daily lives

According to researchers from Duke University, habits account for about 40-45 per cent of our behaviours on a daily basis. Habits are those ‘unthinking routines’ that, according to the researchers’ paper ‘form the bedrock of everyday life.’

Without habits, our lives would be excessively complicated. We’d be ‘doomed to plan, consciously guide, and monitor every action, from making that first cup of coffee in the morning to sequencing the finger movements in a Chopin piano concerto.’

In short, habits help us streamline our lives, making us more efficient and more likely to get through our increasingly jam-packed days. Basically, habits make life easier.

But as the couch potatoes, overeaters and impulse buyers can all tell you, habits can also make life harder.

How habits are formed

The key to breaking bad habits or developing good ones is understanding how habits are formed in the first place.

Research has shown that when a skill or behaviour is first being learned, this new information is processed in the prefrontal cortex of the brain.

But once the skill becomes habitualised, the process moves to the basal ganglia – one of the oldest and most primitive structures of the brain where ‘automatic’ actions, rather than conscious decision-making, occurs.

Creating habits

Let’s use driving as an example. When you first get behind the wheel of a car, it’s mentally taxing work. Just sequencing the simple steps of buckling your seat belt, adjusting mirrors, turning the ignition on, and pulling down the handbrake can be tricky for an L-plater, and can have your brain working in overdrive.

But, with practise and over time, there comes a day when buckling up or yanking the handbrake down is no longer a conscious decision, but an automatic habit.

What’s essentially happened is that your brain has converted this sequence of actions into an automatic routine – a process known as ‘chunking’, and moved this engrained behaviour to your basal ganglia, allowing you to ‘switch off’ while you drive.

And according to scientific studies, chunking lies at the very root of habit formation.

‘There are dozens – if not hundreds – of behavioural chunks that we rely on every day,’ writes Charles Duhigg, the author of book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

The good news is that if you’ve managed to chunk together some pretty bad habits, it is possible to change them. It just involves digging a bit deeper and reflecting on what actions bookend the habits you want to change.

The habit loop

As Duhigg points out, when most people ‘think about habits, they focus on the behaviour or the routine.’

‘But what we’ve learned is that it’s the cue and the reward that really determine why a habit unfolds,’ he told the Harvard Business Review.

A habit, it appears, is structured as a three-step loop:

Creating routines

Firstly, there’s the cue that triggers the behaviour or habit. This cue can be time of day, a certain place, the presence of certain people, a specific emotion, or a set of behaviours that have become ritualised.

This is the habit itself and can include anything from afternoon jogs to having a cigarette with your morning coffee.

As the driving force behind the habit, the reward can be physiological, emotional or physical like a rush of endorphins or a sense of accomplishment.

Understanding how a habit loop works is crucial to breaking an old habit, or breaking in a new one.

‘There’s something almost magical about understanding how habits work,’ Duhigg says. ‘Because studies show that once you understand, once you think about the structure of a habit, it becomes easier to change that habit.’

The aim is to zero in on what cues you to perform this habit, and understand the underlying motivation behind it (the reward). If you understand the reward, you can find a new way of accomplishing it. Duhigg gives a great example of this in his book, and chronicles how he ditched his habit of eating a cookie every afternoon in the work cafeteria.

After identifying the various parts of his habit loop, Duhigg realised that it wasn’t the cookie itself he was craving, but socialising with work mates in the cafeteria. So he tweaked his routine and presto, Duhigg’s diet is one cookie down.

CUE: It’s 3pm
HABIT: Time to head down to the cafeteria for a cookie
REWARD: Because I want the cookie and to socialise

CUE: It’s 3pm
HABIT: Time to find somebody to talk to
REWARD: Because I want the cookie and to socialise

But that’s such a small-scale habit, you might be saying, what about tackling the big ones like getting washboard abs or becoming an ultramarathon runner?

The good news is that the science shows that people are capable of immense change. They even have a name for this group – quantum changers – people who, after a lifetime of being in debt or obese, manage to save up or drop 50kg just like that. The defining characteristic of this group (basically, their secret to success) is a deliberate and considered attitude to changing habits.

So without further ado, I give you four scientifically-backed ways to help you become deliberate with your habits, and make your resolutions stick.

1. Pare down decisions

Pull a Zuckerberg

They say ‘the devil is in the details.’ And indeed, he is. And he’s slowly, but surely, killing your willpower.

‘Having too many choices exhausts and depletes our self-control,’ says social psychologist and willpower expert Dr Roy Baumeister.

His extensive research into willpower has led Baumeister to coin the terms ‘decision fatigue’ and ‘ego-depletion’ – terms backed up by studies that have found that making repeated decisions, even seemingly innocuous ones, depletes a subject’s mental energy stores and erodes their self-control.

It’s the reason why Mark Zuckerberg wears the same t-shirt almost every day.

‘I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible,’ said Zuckerberg when queried about his seemingly limited wardrobe choices. ‘I feel like I’m not doing my job if I spend my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life, so that way I can dedicate all my energy towards just building the best products and services.’

Barack Obama shares a similar philosophy, and only sticks to blue and grey suits.

‘I’m trying to pare down decisions,’ the US president told Vanity Fair. ‘I don’t want to make too many decisions about what I’m eating or wearing because I have too many other decisions to make.’

Being boring, it seems, has its perks. Decluttering your life – eliminating excessive options and frivolous decisions – will give your brain the freedom to focus on the more important stuff.

2. The power of tiny habits

Start small, think big

The problem with new year’s resolutions is that they’re often lofty, vague and grand aspirations like, ‘I want to lose weight’ or ‘I want to save more money.’

While it’s important to dream big, the more ambitious the goal, the more daunting the task becomes. And if it seems all too difficult, science says you’re only setting yourself up to fail.

Stanford professor, BJ Fogg, has a theory to overcome this obstacle – it lies in the power of tiny habits.

Fogg, who is also the director of Persuasive Technology Lab, a lab which researches human behaviour and habit formation, recommends starting with something so easy, it’ll take zero willpower to complete.

‘If you make that very tiny change, like floss one tooth or do two push-ups, and so on, it’s very easy to repeat,’ says Fogg in a Tedx Talk.

If it’s easy to repeat, it’s easy to turn this behaviour into a habit. And so by breaking goals down into tiny habits, Fogg says ‘little by little, we will then approach [the desired outcome] in a very reliable way.’

Research shows that excessively fantasising about the end goal, like how great you’ll look after dropping 10kg, will hinder your success not help it.

So focus instead on how you will lose this 10kg. It might mean eating less, eating healthier, and exercising more. When we look at this in terms of tiny habits, eating less might start with swapping out your regular latte for a piccolo. While exercising more could begin with taking one flight of stairs before you hop into the lifts at work.

Over time, these tiny incremental changes will become a part of your everyday routine, and over the course of a year, they can all add up to make a huge difference.

3. Create behaviour chains

Chunk it

Habit loops and chunking are so deeply engrained in us that to form habits that stick, you’ve got to play by the rules and make these processes work for you, not against.

A simple but effective way of incorporating a new habit (remember, keep it tiny!) is by tacking it onto a pre-existing routine, to create a new ‘behaviour chain.’ Fogg points out that by doing this, you’ll make your regular routine the cue that triggers your new habit. And this makes it that much easier to chunk together new routines.

The formula goes: After I [insert existing behaviour], I will [insert tiny habit].

Fogg’s model shares a similar pattern to the technique of ‘if-then’ planning, which was first conceptualised by NYU psychologist Peter Gollwitzer, and involves the simple premise: if X happens, then I will do Y.

Gollwitzer recently reviewed 94 studies on ‘if-then’ planning, and found that those who used the technique were significantly more successful at reaching their goals.

One study, which followed individuals who wanted to become regular exercisers, found that a few months after establishing their goal, 91% of ‘if-then’ planners still exercised regularly, compared to only 39% of the non-planners.

4. Hiccups are ok, ‘ah-screw-it’ isn’t

Get up

It’s important to remember that new habits are fragile little things. According to a study conducted by the University College London, it can take anywhere between 18-254 days to form a new habit, depending on the individual, the chosen habit and their circumstances.

That’s a long time. So chances are you will slip up. And that’s not a big deal, so long as you don’t throw your hands up and give into, what science has labelled, the ‘what-the-hell’ effect.

Research into the consequences of what-the-hell effect have shown that how you respond to an initial failure will indicate how likely you will be at succeeding long-term.

Head researcher, Yael Zemack-Rugar, gives the example of dieting.

‘When individuals have a dieting goal but end up eating a tempting doughnut at the morning meeting, they have two choices: course correct by carefully monitoring their intake for the rest of the day, or give up on the goal entirely.’

The results showed the dieters who thought, ‘What the hell, my diet is shot for the day, may as well tuck in!’ compared to the ones that course corrected, were less likely to succeed with their long-term goals.

‘Our research shows that the tendency to enact the what-the-hell effect versus course correction is a consistent one. This is a decision we make not only within a given goal or situation, such as eating, but also across situations,’ explains Zemack-Rugar.

‘This means that once we fail, if we tend to ‘what-the-hell’ regarding our dieting goal, we will also tend to do so regarding our budgeting, academic, or even honesty goals.’

So if you slip up, just push on and learn from your mistakes. Understanding what went wrong rather than giving into defeat will be a powerful and useful tool.

Author and 99U speaker, Ramit Sethi, gives a great example of this:

‘When I sat down to analyse why I wasn’t going to the gym, I realised: my closet was in another room. That meant that I had to walk out in the cold [to] put on my clothes. It was easier to just stay in bed. Once I realised this, I folded my clothes and shoes the night before. When I woke up the next morning, I would roll over and see my gym clothes sitting on the floor. The result? My gym attendance soared by over 300 per cent.’

So, now what?

Get started. It really is true what they say – it’s the biggest hurdle to get past. Spend a week or two reviewing your routine and start finding opportunities to tack on those tiny habits. Strip away excessive options and do everything you can to avoid ‘ah screw it’ mode. Incorporate these simple steps into your daily routine and you’ll be closer to a healthier, happier and more successful you!

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