The secrets to habit change

April 16, 2015, 2:14 PM UTC
Artificial intelligence, cyber brain, illustration
Artificial intelligence, cyber brain, illustration
Photograph by Mehau Kulyk/SPL Getty Images/Science Photo Library RF

It’s spring. By now, you’ve either broken your New Year’s resolutions or successfully integrated them into your routines.

If you’re in the former group, you’re in luck. This is actually a terrific time to create new habits or to shed old ones. That’s because the important elements of habit change aren’t tied to a season. Moreover, the experience of failing to change can actually give you crucial information that will ensure victory the next time around.

For one, it’s important to begin the change process with what social scientists call “pre-contemplation,” or really thinking through the pros and cons of your current situation, what is keeping you in the bad habit, and what would be the benefit of changing. Such thinking helps make you aware of factors that might hold you back.

“People tend to fail because they start directly in the contemplating phase—they rethink their personal beliefs, capabilities, they start thinking, ‘I can do this, I can change jobs, I can update my resume.’ But what they haven’t done is become fully aware of the current situation and the consequences of continuing with what you’re doing,” says Sebastian Bailey, New York-area author of Mind-Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently.

Indeed, if you resolve to change your behavior at a time of year when you have time to plan—as opposed to when the Jan. 1 deadline encourages you to impulsively make resolutions—you’ll be better prepared to handle bumps in the road. When you know what made you falter in your resolve to stay off Facebook at work, for instance, you can craft a plan to sidestep that problem in the future. This is part of the third stage of habit change, which is preparation, according to Bailey.

In The Power of Habit, journalist Charles Duhigg explains habits as a combination of a trigger or cue that prompts us to act in a certain way, followed by a routine that culminates in a reward we receive from engaging in that habit. For example, if we have a habit of eating an afternoon snack, the cue may be seeing a colleague headed for the cafeteria, followed by the routine of joining him for biscotti and coffee, which give us the reward of a caffeine and sugar rush.

Once a habit has been established, the neural pathways in our brain associated with that habit cannot be eliminated; we can only form new ones by replacing the habit with a new routine. It’s important to examine your habits to understand what your motivation is; for instance, do you actually like that sugar and caffeine jolt? Or are you seeking social connection during the afternoon lull? That insight will give you the tools to change your habits.

If you have a habit of checking Twitter when you’re bored at work, try instead to do a quick set of pushups, go for a walk, chat with a neighbor, read a stack of piled-up journal articles, or do a crossword puzzle. Whichever of these activities helps distract you from Twitter is most closely addressing the need you’re trying to meet with a social media fix. The winning activity is the best candidate for a new routine that can be sandwiched between the cue and the reward, according to Duhigg.

Before you leap into habit change, Bailey recommends taking your time in the pre-contemplation, contemplation, and preparation stages. Think through what you need to do differently. You may discover that a smaller change is best. Bailey says he remembers a woman who was dying to find a job t another company, but when she started to explore her motivations, she realized she was simply bored with her role. If she took a similar job with a different employer, she would likely be just as dissatisfied. Instead, that woman made a lateral move and found greater job satisfaction without losing tenure or making a disruptive change of employer.

You need to arouse your emotions and connect to the strongest motivation you have to change. Perhaps a visual reminder on your office wall will help you stick to your goal. Find a way to believe that you can change.

“For personal change, it’s about understanding the problem and understanding the emotions around it. If people feel the problem strongly enough, they’ll do anything to solve it,” Bailey says.

Set goals that require you to stretch yourself, but ones that you can believably reach. Stanford University Professor B.J. Fogg says one of the biggest challenges to lasting behavior change is overreaching on goals, rather than making small, sustainable changes in our daily routines and building on our success.

“Setting and tracking small, achievable weekly goals is the best way to change a long-term habit,” says Missy Jaeger, vice president of client success at the employee health and wellness firm Keas, noting that brain activity flares when you start moving your body.

Belief is a key part of successful habit change, Duhigg notes. “To modify a habit, you must decide to change it. You must know you have control and be self-conscious enough to use it,” he writes.

Research shows that if we anticipate obstacles and plan for them, we’re more likely to succeed. For instance, if you aim to have one networking meeting a week and someone cancels on you, consider having a back-up plan to use that time to reach out to other contacts. Or if you decide ahead of time that if you slip from your diet, you’ll jump right back into healthy eating, you could avoid the weeklong binge on doughnuts and burgers that you would’ve previously justified as “not counting” since you already broke your diet.

Habits are much easier to create or change if you have social support. Enlist colleagues and friends to change habits together, or in helping you stick to your goals. If your first Facebook post of the day is a resolution to stay off social media except for your lunch break, the fear of public shaming may keep you honest. Similarly, users of the Keas wellness gaming platform who joined a team during an employer-sponsored health challenge reported a 14% increase in exercise over the course of the three-month challenge.

“The evidence is clear: If you want to change a habit, you must find an alternative routine, and your odds of success go up dramatically when you commit to changing as part of a group,” Duhigg writes.

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