So you want to make a change in your everyday life — say, exercise more, meet all your deadlines, or develop a new skill. You make a plan, conjure your willpower, and commit. Yet, like the vast majority of people, you eventually fail. What happened? Perhaps getting to the gym was more of a hassle than you realized, or you found yourself too tired at night to study that new programming language. It’s easy to blame yourself for lacking self-control or dedication. But behavioral change rarely occurs through willpower alone, as Dr. Wendy Wood, a behavioral scientist tells us. Instead, the people most likely to make lasting changes engage their willpower less often than the rest of us. They know how to form helpful habits.
The habits people build end up structuring their everyday lives, often without them noticing. When people recognize a bad habit, they often try to change it through willpower alone — but that rarely works. Here’s what research says are the most effective ways to replace bad habits with good ones:
Habits Shape Our Lives
The habits we build end up structuring our everyday lives, often without us even noticing. Sure, humans have advanced brains capable of creativity, problem-solving, and making plans. But it’s our daily habits — the small, everyday behaviors we do without thinking about it — that account for so much of how we spend our time and energy. It’s worth taking a close look at what habits are, and whether they’re having a negative or positive effect on our lives.
What are Habits, Exactly?
Habits are automatic behaviors. Instead of requiring intention, they occur in response to environmental cues like time of day or location. Essentially, your brain forms an association between a specific context and specific behavior. You then execute that behavior — the ritual or habit — in that context without even thinking about it. Habits might be things like checking your email as soon as you get to work in the morning, walking a certain route home every evening, chewing your fingernails when nervous, or scrolling through your social media newsfeed when you hop in bed at night. Habits form when you receive a reward for behavior.
How Do Habits Form?
When exposed to something enjoyable, your brain releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine. This “dopamine rush” makes you feel good, so you’re incentivized to repeat that behavior in order to get rewarded with dopamine again. Over time, the association between the context, behavior, and reward gets stored in areas of your brain, which are associated with emotions and implicit learning. Checking your newsfeed at night, for example, might be enjoyable, at least sometimes. So, without even realizing it, that hope for another dopamine hit brings you back to check it before bed. Before long, this habit gets stored in your brain and is hard to change.
Habits Can Persist Even When Rewards End
Over time, some habits can become so ingrained that they remain even when the reward ends. In one study on habit change, researchers tried to get people to change a simple workplace behavior: taking the stairs instead of the elevator. They tried educating people about the benefits of using the stairs, like reduced electricity use and getting some quick exercise. It made no difference. So, they made the elevator doors close 16 seconds slower — just enough an inconvenience to nudge about one-third of people into taking the stairs.
But the more remarkable finding was that people continued to take the stairs even after the elevator speed returned to normal. They stuck with their habit.
How Can You Change Habits?
Make a new habit. In short, the best way to change a habit is to replace it with a new one. This means you must complete a new behavior in a given context, get a reward, and repeat. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Forming new habits is challenging because of the barriers that get in the way of completing a behavior, like distance, time, and effort.
Create a helpful environment. One of the best ways to overcome friction is to create an environment that makes the new behavior easy and rewarding. The new environment ideally will reduce old cues that led to bad habits, and increase cues that lead to helpful new habits. “One of the really important things about behavior change is you have to work with what’s around you,” Dr. Wood says. “We really need an environment that would make it easier to actually achieve our goals.”
This is where your planning and thinking come into play. If going to the gym is a hassle or you just don’t like it, find an at-home exercise routine you actually enjoy and leave your exercise clothes and equipment out in a convenient, obvious spot. If you want to start reading before bed instead of checking your phone, consider charging your phone overnight in a spot out of reach from your bed, and find yourself a book you just can’t put down.
Use Habits to Your Advantage
Although habits get a bad rap, using them wisely can substantially improve your life. In addition to helping you reach your goals, habits can provide a sense of structure, control, and even meaning to your life. Many gain a sense of confidence and control when they perform specific rituals before or during games. Other people might have family traditions or routines that provide meaning. But even boring habits can be helpful. Because habits take so little brainpower, they can also free up your mind for other things, like thinking about your important life goals or calling your mom on your drive home. “When we’ve practiced on things enough that we don’t have to think about it, then we can do other things,” Dr. Wood told Big Think. “We can make sense out of our world.”
Article Credit: https://bigthink.com/the-well/wendy-wood-changing-habits/