Developing New Habits


Developing New Habits

  • By Ian Bradley
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Good habits are great, they function like automatic algorithms that silently function in the background to help us engage in adaptive behaviour. Habits can not only propel us to good things that they do so automatically and without highly conscious and deliberate thought thus freeing our brains to do more complex things. Automatically buckling the seat belt of your car allows you to keep thinking about your morning schedule with no cognitive disruption.


“If we all had to deliberate about every little thing we do in each moment, we wouldn’t be able to function,” says Phillippa Lally, a psychologist and senior research fellow at University College London. 


If habits require little energy yet propel us to productive and healthy goals, how can they be fostered.  In this post, I’ve reviewed some habit-forming tips from a variety of authors and researchers.


First start small: Want to start a habit? Big behavior change can come from setting small goals, according to BJ Fogg’s new book, Tiny Habits. According to Fogg, changing our behaviors can feel like a monumental task. We pressure ourselves to go big or go home. Not surprisingly, these big expectations are often unrealistic, and that’s a recipe for disappointment and self-criticism. Instead, start small.  In the case of wanting to read more, that might mean read one paragraph. In the case of meditating, it might mean starting the process by learning to take just three calming breaths.


Want to develop a habit, develop a habitual context: To make a new habit, you need to repeat the same behavior in a consistent setting. This in a “consistent setting” element is crucial. If you don’t anchor your new habit to a specific contextual cue — such as during your train ride to work, or just after you finish doing the dishes at night — it’s unlikely that you’ll stick with it. If you’re trying to read more books, say, both of these times each day could be good anchors for that new habit. More research has shown repeating behaviors in this way helps form habits through the involvement of multiple brain regions.

Of course, the best link that can foster habitual performance is time. Predictable situations make the best new-habit cues, says Benjamin Gardner, a habit researcher and senior lecturer in psychology at King’s College London. So let’s say you want to do yoga twice a week. Rather than trying to fit in a yoga class whenever your schedule allows, make a plan to go every Tuesday and Thursday  at 6 pm immediately after work.


Following the SMART goal methology, be specific. Map out the nitty-gritty details of your desired new habit. If you want to get more fruit in your diet, make your goal to eat exactly 10 raspberries every morning with breakfast, or to have an apple every day with lunch. “The more specific and clear your plan is, the more likely you are to follow through,” says Gardner.


Don’t forget the “T” aspect of the SMART with establishing your new habits.

Research by Dholakia showed that with money management, focusing on the here and now rather than long-term produced great savings.  For example, focusing on a savings goals for one month was better and more productive, in fact 14x’s better than focusing upon a four-month goal.


Reminder cues: In the beginning, people sometimes simply forget about their new goal. Maybe you had every intention of going to gym after work, but then the night before you forgot to pack your workout gear. Guard against this by setting out all sorts of reminders or alerts. You could schedule one reminder the night before to pack whatever gear you need, and then other reminders leading up to or just before your new behavior.


Putting a habit into a larger category: It is important to put daily tasks, especially newly planned habits into mental categories that are reflect your basic values.  You’re not just avoiding that muffin but you’re extending your life or reducing body fat.  You’re not just phoning your retired parents but maintaining family values and continuity.


How long? It’s unclear just how long it takes for people to form a new habit. An old myth states that doing something every day for 21 days will solidify it. In reality, it could take many weeks or months for a new behavior to become truly habitual — meaning you do it without thinking about it. But on the bright side, most behaviors start to feel familiar and less effortful after just a few weeks, he says.


Breaking old ones. While forming a new habit is no walk in the park, breaking bad habits is often much trickier. “Once a mental association is there, it’s really hard to remove,” UCL’s Lally says. Maybe you’re accustomed to pouring yourself a drink when you walk in the door after work. Or you spend every night on your couch watching Netflix when there are other things you should really be doing. It can help to adopt a new behavior to replace the unwanted one. Rather than simply trying not to have an alcoholic drink when you walk in the door, you could make a plan to drink your favorite Kombucha every night when you get home. Or if exercise takes away your urge to drink, you could go for a short run every night. “You’re trying to associate the situation” — in this case, walking into your place at night — “with a new, better behavior,” Lally says.


Change that context: Again from Lally: “maybe the best way to break a bad habit is to change or avoid the environmental cue that triggers your unwanted behavior. When you move to a new place or job, that’s a great time to form new habits because everything’s different,” she says.

If that sort of large-scale change isn’t possible, smaller switches can also help. For example, if dumping sugar in your coffee is a problem, going to a new coffee place should make it easier for you to form a new routine. Even minor environmental changes can be helpful especially those that create a time delay.  For example, if you want to use less diary in your coffee place the cream at the back of the fridge thus adding barriers of both “work” and “time” ahead of the barrier.


Rewards:  Attaching rewards to new behaviors is a time-tested strategy to learn new behaviour. Reward yourself for reading, going to the gym, restricting junk food with meaningful rewards. Don’t forget positive self-talk as a reinforcer.  Fogg of Tiny Habits reports that after engaging in some nascent habit he’ll shout-out “awesome” or remember a fourth grade teacher and imagine her saying: “You did a good job!”

What if the new habit is not very enjoyable at all?  Lally suggests something called “temptation bundling” where the new habit is associated with something pleasant. Maybe there’s a blog or podcast you really dig. Let yourself read or listen to it only while you’re at the gym on the elliptical. Over time, your brain will start to associate that activity with the thing you love, and you’ll find yourself looking forward to your gym time, rather than dreading it.

Here’s another trick to help you groove habits that initially seem unappealing. According to Nir’s book, Indistractable, instead of withdrawing or avoiding the activity, re-imagine it by getting more into it by reading, talking to people about the habit you find less than compelling.  In other words, let the activity stimulate your curiosity.


What if the habit benefits are too off in the future; try working backwards.  Research has established that making specific plans and visualizing goals all spur goal-oriented actions and mindsets. That’s the good part of strategic thinking.  However, between the setting of the goal and it’s achievement through good habits many interfering thoughts can occur such as “my perfect body is a long way off” or “my thesis defense is months away.”


Researchers from the Peking University HSBC Business School, the Korea University Business School, and the University of Iowa collaborated to see if goal-planning methods affected motivation and pursuit of goals. The goals included such student activities as term papers to dissertations.  Some of the participants planned their steps in chronological order. The other participants worked in reverse, planning the steps they would take just before their goal and working backward in time until they reached the step nearest in the future.


For relatively simple goals, there was no difference between forward planning and backward planning. If a goal is short-term or requires only a couple of steps, the two are likely no different. But for complex tasks (like planning out how to study for a comprehensive exam), students preparing backward anticipated the necessary steps more clearly and followed the original plan to reach the set goal. They had higher expectations for reaching their goals and felt less pressed for time during progress toward them.



Habit sustainability: The path to well-being is often paved with goals. Some of those goals have clear finish lines—lose 10 pounds; make a new friend. But finish lines also feel like endings. Once we pass them, we might be less motivated to keep up the habits that got us there in the first place, so we end up regressing.


A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found a way to keep people engaged in their goals even after the pride of triumph had worn off. Across six different experiments, Szu-Chi Huang and Jennifer Aaker from the Stanford Graduate School of Business studied over 1,600 people with a variety of aspirations, from restricting their calories to walking more steps to graduating from school. Many of the participants were U.S. college students and staff; others were businesspeople in Ghana.


After everyone completed their goals, the researchers divided them into three groups. One group was asked to reflect on their experience as a journey, a second group thought about their goal as reaching a destination, and a third didn’t hear these metaphors at all. All the participants then journaled about their goal or talked about it with an interviewer.


Ultimately, the researchers found that thinking about goals as a journey can help us maintain good habits even after we’ve reached our target. The journey groups were more likely to take immediate actions to stay on track, like signing up for an exercise program or doing reading that would further their education. When the researchers checked in with them days or months later, they had stuck with their habits better than the other two groups. Additional analyses found that the journey metaphor gave people a greater sense of personal growth, a feeling of changing and learning over the course of the experience.


When, not if, your new habit falters.  Violations of self-prescribed goals or habits often lead to abandonment.  If you miss one or two gym dates, order that triple espresso rather than the decaf or exceed your two drink per day limit, then research and clinical experience shows that you are at-risk to giving the whole thing up.  Why?  Often it’s due to anger; you’re annoyed at yourself and throwing the baby out with the bath water seems like a way of restoring inner peace. That’s why self-compassion in the face of lapses or mistakes is crucial.  Anticipate that you will falter, treat yourself gently and slowly start again.



Reducing Environmental Distracting Triggers. The famous consumer behaviour psychologist, Fogg who writes on persuasion technology preaches that emitting a behaviour was a function of three things: Motivation, Ability and Trigger.  We talked before about the importance of linking new habits to external triggers, but Fogg cautions us about how of modern world is filled with electronic triggers that maintain behaviours that we might want to change. He advises all of us to turn-off all noises of push notifications since these serve as distractions to ongoing work.  There is new evidence that mere visual presence of a smart phone, even a silent one, reduces working memory since effort is required “not to check.”


There are many business applications of this principle:  For example, pharmacy errors in the dispensing of meds by nurses in hospital were significantly reduced in those hospitals where the dispensing nurses wore a special orange coloured vest meaning “do not disturb.”  This is similar to the “sterile cockpit zone” developed in aviation to eliminate non-essential communication in the cockpit below 10,000 feet.


Conclusion: Start those new habits but maybe with less ambitious targets that are timely and specific. Link your new habits to existing routines and examine triggers that initiate interfering habits. Be gentle with yourself and see habit development as a long-term journey. Go luck with your own habit formation journey.