Building habits: not about willpower
For a long time, it seemed that the key to success in habit formation was willpower, a belief born from a famous 1998 study in which participants were invited to a table displaying radishes and chocolate cookies, and instructed to eat only one or the other. Afterwards, when asked to solve puzzles (unsolvable puzzles, though the test subjects didn’t know this), the radish-eaters gave up after an average of 8 minutes, while those who had eaten cookies persevered for an average of 19 minutes. The conclusion was ‘ego depletion’: those munching on radishes had used a significant amount of willpower to deny the chocolate cookies, and consequently had less will remaining to finish the puzzles. Willpower was deduced to be a muscle, something that could be fatigued or strengthened depending on how you used it. The science behind habit formation was believed to have been discovered, and willpower was the new secret weapon.
Since 1998, though, no-one has been able to replicate the results of that study, while the massive advances made in the fields of neuroscience have shone new light on how and why the human brain forms habits. Studies have confirmed that we are hardwired for habit formation – it helps the brain save energy by automating sequences of common and rewarding behaviour – and that creating new habits is an extremely effective way of implementing change in your life. But, willpower is not the magic key. Not surprisingly, there is no magic key – the best strategy varies from person to person. Bearing that variability in mind, though, here are some useful steps in creating new habits.
- Get to know yourself
Anyone who has set a New Year’s resolution and struggled to follow through knows the strange relationship between high motivation and low results. ‘I was so motivated to lose weight last week,’ you may think to yourself, ‘how is it that I’m lying on the couch eating ice cream again?’ What follows is usually a lot of self-judgement and assumptions of failure – classic tactics of the Inner Critic. But this is only one example of unconscious processes that guide our behaviour. Want to change a habit? Begin with trying to understand why you have the habit in the first place. Spend some time exploring your behaviour and find the conscious, unconscious and shadow drivers behind that behaviour. Invite reflections from people you trust, or get more professional help from a coach.
- Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness practice can help one become more aware of habitual behaviour in the present moment. Professor of Psychology, Wendy Wood, estimates that 43% of our actions every day are habitual, but because we are largely unaware of this, most of these actions are performed on autopilot. Mindfulness practice unlocks autopilot and increases opportunities to see, and therefore change, habits.
- Unpack your tendencies
Gretchen Rubin, author of The Four Tendencies, suggests that your relation to habits relies on your personality type. Though there are many different ways of assessing personality type, Rubin has identified four primary types: the Upholder, the Questioner, the Obliger and the Rebel. Each of these types is motivated and deterred in different ways, and understanding your type can help you create the right strategy for setting up a new habit. Perhaps you’re the type of person who responds to internal motivation, or perhaps you need a coach or buddy to keep you accountable. Take Rubin’s free type quiz here.
- Choose the right habit
According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, breaking a habit is almost impossible. The neural pathways in which habits reside are deeply embedded in the human brain and are very difficult to alter. It is more productive focusing on the creation of a new habit that can take the place of the old one. Also, it is important to accept that we are all different and the habit you are after might not fit you well. Want to get healthy? Excellent, but perhaps jogging is really not your thing, or 30 minutes of daily meditation is just not realistic for you right now. Be honest with yourself about what you could possibly do and then stretch it, but don’t chase a habit because you read about it in a magazine. Constantly check with yourself: am I not doing this because it’s the wrong habit, or is there some unconscious driver of resistance at play? Remember points 1 and 2 above.
- Understand habit formation
Every habit has three parts: a cue (triggers the habit), a routine (the habit itself), and a reward (what you get out of the habit). Using our previous example, the cue for eating ice-cream might be feeling sad or lonely, this triggers the trip to the freezer and the ice-cream fest on the couch, and the reward is a shot of pleasure that eliminates the sadness (at least for a little while). In order for a new habit to have the best chance of replacing this habit, it needs to be triggered by the same cue, and deliver a similar reward. In this example, the new habit might be a short burst of exercise – exercise releases endorphins and serotonin, stimulating the same feel-good emotions – and more – that are the reward for the old habit. Only, with exercise, the feel-good lasts longer and has multiple additional benefits. Just not able to stomach the idea of exercise? Find out what’s blocking you (points 1 and 3 above) or find an alternative that offers the same reward (point 4).
- Refine and repeat
Of course, establishing a new habit is not as simple as described above and requires motivation and perseverance. Eventually, a habit moves from being a conscious decision to unconscious behaviour, but until then you will need to constantly assess what is or isn’t working and refine your approach using the steps above. Good luck and keep going – the rewards are great.