“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” -Will Durant
We all have ideas of what we want for ourselves. We want to eat better, exercise more, take time for ourselves, decrease stress, become organized, save money…this list goes on. So if we know what we want, why is it so hard to do? Think about something you do easily. Chances are, it is a habit for you – something you don’t have to put a lot of thought into. Our brains love habits! We only have so much decision-making power, and, not to mention, willpower, allotted each day. If we can turn some actions into habits, we free up our brains so that we can make more decisions throughout the day.
So how do we turn an action into a habit? Much research has been done on the subject. Here are a few of the facts and the best tips I have found:
Automate New Behaviors
In her book Small Move, Big Change: Using Microresolutions to Transform Your Life Permanently, Caroline Arnold explains that the part of the brain that deals with decision-making and problem-solving also deals with willpower. She says that if you have a job or lifestyle that requires you to make a lot of decisions all day, your daily allotment of willpower will be depleted. If you are trying to change a behavior, choosing the new behavior over the familiar one will feel more challenging. This explains why I often hear from clients that they stay on track with their goals until later in the day, or until the weekend. For example, you may choose to eat healthy food for breakfast and lunch, but by the afternoon, you binge on snacks.
Jeremy Dean, author of Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick, suggests that having actions on autopilot can help or hinder us. When we operate on autopilot, our brains don’t have to make decisions; we just do it, almost without thinking. Imagine if we had to think about every action we take, from backing the car out of the driveway to brushing our teeth and getting dressed. We would be exhausted with just the everyday tasks. If we can get the actions we want to increase on autopilot, we will have success. However, if actions we want to rid ourselves of are already on autopilot, we will have a hard time eliminating them. Breaking the habit of hitting the snooze button every morning will be difficult, as you likely don’t even remember doing it!
So how can we make behaviors we want to increase go on autopilot? Use triggers. A trigger is an action you already do on a regular basis that will remind you to do the action you are trying to increase. If the trigger is on autopilot, then you will not have to think about it; it will occur and trigger the new action. For example, you may want to drink more water throughout the day, but you just don’t think about it. Can you attach that action to something you already do? How about drinking water on your drive to and from work? Or consuming a bottle with every meal? Maybe take a sip every time you check your phone. I once had a client who wanted to increase exercise. She did 20 squats every time she used the restroom! She certainly didn’t have to think about that trigger, and doing squats became her norm.
Dean suggests putting your desired outcome into an “If…then…” statement. For instance, if you are trying to decrease stress, your statement might be, “If I feel overwhelmed, I will take 5 deep, slow breaths.” If you are trying to reduce credit card debt, you could try, “If I am buying something less than $30, I will use cash.” Dean calls this “implementation intention”. This strategy could also be combined with the microresolution technique from Caroline Arnold. She wanted to decrease her consumption of sweets, and realized that at work there were often treats set out. She decided, “If I am in meetings at work, I will pass up the cookie tray.” This decision was helpful in slowly decreasing her intake of sweets, but was a microresolution in that she didn’t give up cookies altogether, nor eating at meetings. She could have cookies other times, or bring her own snack to meetings. Once she was in the habit of passing up treats at meetings, she could expand that behavior further.
Design Your Environment
Thalerand and Sunstein, in their book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, talk about manipulating your environment and circumstances to achieve success. They relay a story about a cafeteria worker who moved the pizza further back and out of reach, putting salads and healthier foods to the front, in order to encourage the students to eat healthier options. You can set your alarm clock across the room to avoid hitting the snooze button. You can park farther away from your destination to increase steps. In a nutshell, make it harder for yourself to not do the smart thing. An example they give is to make a bigger contribution to your 401K than you think you want to make. Their theory is that you will learn to do without that extra money rather than going through the work of filling out paperwork in order to make your contribution smaller.
“We become what we repeatedly do.” -Sean Covey
You know what you want for yourself. Relying on willpower alone to achieve your goals makes for a challenging journey. Put some of these strategies to the test, and take some of the struggle out of forming new habits.