Eat healthy. Exercise regularly. Get organised. We know what we should be doing. We resolve to do them every year.
So why then do only 8 per cent of people achieve their New Years resolutions? And why do general studies of goal achievement find that fewer than 10 percent of people actually achieve the goals they set? Lack of willpower? Lack of self-control?
Most of the behaviours we struggle to change are well established habits. What’s the big deal with that?
While we like to think we have conscious control over our behaviour at all times, studies show we overestimate how much control we really have over our habits.
Participants were also asked how confident they were in predicting their behavior over the coming 7 days. An unusual result emerged. Those with the strongest habits, who were the least successful in predicting their behavior over the coming week, were the most confident in their predictions.
So how much conscious control do you actually have over your habits? Neuroscience suggests it’s less than you think.
Studies of the brain show our conscious choices are controlled by the prefrontal cortex – the thinking part of the brain. Habits, on the other hand, are controlled by the basal ganglia – a part of the brain that handles automatic routines and functions beneath conscious awareness.
Simply put, habits are like your brain’s autopilot.
Making decisions and solving problems relies heavily on a region of the brain called the prefrontal cortex…Your prefrontal cortex is the biological seat of your conscious interactions with the world. It’s the part of your brain central to thinking things through, instead of being on “autopilot” as you go about your life.
The basal ganglia are four masses in the brain region driving routine activities that don’t require a lot of active mental attention. From an evolutionary perspective, the basal ganglia are an older part of the brain. They are also highly energy efficient, with fewer overall limitations than the prefrontal cortex. As soon as you repeat an activity even just a few times, the basal ganglia start to take over. The basal ganglia, and many other brain regions, function beneath conscious awareness.
By now you might be wondering: if habits aren’t within our conscious control, what triggers us to go into habit autopilot?
Basically, habits get encoded into our brain along with the contexts and situations they are repeated in. These situations then becomes the cue that triggers the habit.
Habits emerge through associative learning. ‘We find patterns of behavior that allow us to reach goals. We repeat what works, and when actions are repeated in a stable context, we form associations between cues and response‘.
Our habit autopilot helps explain why we fail so miserably at our New Years resolutions and goals.
Conscious decisions that rely on willpower and self-control to change your habits aren’t going to work because your strongest habits are unconsciously cued automatic behaviours.
When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.
So how do we fight our habits?
How can you get yourself off autopilot and change your habits? Luckily, there’s a lot of science on this.
Change Your Habits
1) Make The Unconscious Conscious
If habits aren’t conscious decisions, how do you override the habit autopilot? Awareness.
How do you become aware of when you are acting habitually? Monitor ourselves.
What the researchers found was that, for strong habits, vigilant monitoring was the most effective strategy…with other approaches providing little help.
How exactly do you go about monitoring yourself?
If you want “the works”, you can borrow from the habit studies and do your own “experience sample” – set yourself an hourly reminder and every hour note the following in a diary or habit tracking app like Strides:
- How often the habit was performed;
- The approximate time the habit was performed;
- The situation in which the habit was performed; and
- How you were feeling when you performed the habit.
By now some of you are probably thinking: monitoring sounds really boring and hard. But it doesn’t have to be.
Other monitoring strategies can be as simple as stepping on some scales if you’re trying to lose weight. Or just setting a target amount of a behaviour per day.
smokers asked to try to smoke the same number of cigarettes every day gradually decrease their overall smoking— even when they are explicitly told not to try to smoke less.
So now you’re becoming more aware of your habits – but what exactly do we do with this new awareness?
2) Spot Your Triggers
Remember earlier I mentioned that the context in which a habit occurs eventually becomes the trigger for the habit?
Identifying your triggers will help you reverse engineer the habits you want to change.
I get upset – then I shop. I’m holding a wine – then I want a cigarette. It’s 10pm – then I start snacking.
Whether we’re talking about college students or people in the community, 45% of the behaviors participants listed in their diaries tended to be repeated in the same location almost every day.
So now you’re starting to get this “change your habit” thing. You’re monitoring your habit and you’ve identified the cues that trigger the habit. Excellent. Now do you try to kill the habit? Nope.
3) Replace, Don’t Kill
How do you get rid of a bad habit? You don’t.
Trying to kill a bad habit doesn’t work.
Habits never really disappear. They’re encoded into the structures of our brain, and that’s a huge advantage for us, because it would be awful if we had to relearn how to drive after every vacation. The problem is that your brain can’t tell the difference between bad and good habits, and so if you have a bad one, it’s always lurking there, waiting for the right cues
What do you do instead of trying to kill a habit?
The secret to breaking a habit is to replace it.
That’s where the triggers come in – what are you going to do when the trigger happens?
Establish a new habit to take the place of the old habit.
Think of the bad habit you want to change like a river that’s been following the same course for a long time. Now you want to stop it suddenly. You can’t just dam the river because the water will rise up and break through. Instead, you have to encourage the river to take a different course. In order to break old habits, the attempt needs to be paired with making a new habit.
Replace the shopping with a walk. Replace the cigarettes with gum. Replace the full calorie soft drink with zero calorie soft drink.
Just remember, if you want to change your habits studies consistently show that keeping changes small leads to greater success in habit change. Stanford University habits researcher BJ Fogg calls these tiny habits.
Still sounding like hard work? Is there an easier way to change your habits? What if you removed the trigger that starts the habit autopilot?
4) Rework The Cues
One of the most powerful ways to change your habits is to change the cues in your environment that trigger the habit.
Rework the cues – disrupt the habit.
There’s certainly evidence that a change of context can help change habits. In [a] study of students who moved from one university to another they were able to change their everyday TV watching, reading, and exercising habits with their change of context.
As habit researchers Wendy Wood and David Neal explain here, even small changes can disrupt the habit sequence and allow your conscious mind to take over from autopilot.
Move the alarm clock to the other side of the room. Hide the junk food. Throw out batteries to the TV remote.
Your guiding principle here should be: make it easy to do what you should do, hard to do what you shouldn’t.
Is there a simple trick you can use to boost your success replacing habits and triggers?
5) Hack Your Habit
You can boost our chances of success by taking advantage of the way the habit system works to reinvent your habits the way you want them. How?
Give yourself an if-then plan.
If-then plans are plans set in language of our habit system, the language of cue/trigger – response contingencies. They give a specific plan of action for when and where you will do your new habit. And they work.
One study looked at people who had the goal of becoming regular exercisers. Half the participants were asked to plan where and when they would exercise each week (e.g., “If it is Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, then I will hit the gym for an hour before work”). The results were dramatic: weeks later, 91 percent of if- then planners were still exercising regularly, compared to only 39 per- cent of nonplanners!
Similar results have been shown for other health-promoting behaviors, like remembering to do monthly breast self-exams (100 percent of planners, 53 percent of nonplanners), and getting cervical cancer screenings (92 percent of planners, 60 percent of nonplanners).
What does an if-then plan look like?
If-Then plans tell you exactly what to do, and exactly when to do it. They take the form of:
If X happens, then I will do Y.
If I brush my teeth, then I will floss.
If it is 5pm, then I will go to the gym.
Starting to get the hang of this habit thing? How else can we boost our chances of success?
6) Strengthen Your Habit
Most popular advice to change your habits suggests that the last step in changing a habit is to strengthen the new habit with a reward. Fine. Positive reinforcement is a mainstay of strengthening behaviour. But can you improve on rewards alone? What other strengtheners can you add?
Have you talked to your friends?
Friends can be a huge influence on efforts to change your habits and as studies show, an easy way to improve our chances of success.
successful participants were far more likely than others to tell their friends, family, and colleagues about their goals…Other work suggests that the greater the public declaration, the more motivated people are to achieve their goals. Telling others about your aims also helps you achieve them, in part because friends and family often provide much-needed support when the going gets tough.
Worried about the shame of telling others and then failing to stick to your new regime? Excellent.
Use it to your advantage with a commitment device.
A commitment device is basically a way of adding the risk of losing something for failing to stick to our new habit. How does its work?
Give $100 to your friend. If you achieve your habit goal within your chosen timeframe, you get your $100 back. If you don’t, they get to keep the $100. Or it gets donated to a cause you hate. Get the idea?
The website StickK.com brings together both the risk of loss and social support to help with habit change.
Got all that? Understand how to change your habits? Right, let’s round this up.
Image credits: Flickr