- By Ian Bradley
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Good habits are great. They function like automatic algorithms that silently work in the background to help us engage in adaptive behaviour. “Silently” is key. That is, without conscious thought or deliberate effort, we can effortlessly go to the gym, benefit from regular sleep and eat healthily. Automatically buckling the seat belt of your car also 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.
Here’s a list of things to consider at the beginning of the process.
First start small: Do you want to fundamentally change your life? Remember that 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 chapter a night. In the case of meditating, it might mean starting the process by learning to take just three calming breaths and then noticing the effects. Our brains think of habits are dichotomous- you’re either doing it or not. Benefit from this natural bias, by taking that first, albeit small, step.
If you 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. The “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.
Of course, the very best link to foster habitual performance is time. I was once a part-owner of an indoor tennis club in Montreal. The key financial metric was court occupancy. However, there was a problem. How do you get people to leave their warm condos to play tennis in the middle of a freezing January?
Relying upon people to spontaneously develop the urge to play tennis isn’t going to fill those courts. Therefore, we didn’t rely on multiple decisions but just one. We sold a year’s worth of permanent time- the rental of one court at a specific time on a specific day for the entire year. One decision, linked to a specific time over the year, was the key to a successful habit.
Cues and Places: Don’t forget to add reminder cues to that habitual context. When people begin a new habit, it’s easy to forget. 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, including electronic reminders, leading up to or just before your new behavior.
Give yourself a boost by starting the new habit in a new place. For example, if you want to stop putting sugar in your coffee, we might begin the new habit in a new coffee shop. If you want to have a new sleeping routine, you might buy a new pillow. New habits are fostered in new contexts.
Aa final step in the initiation process follow the SMART goal methodology, and 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.
Short or Long-term vision? It depends.
For some habits, especially those that aredichotomous, either “on or off,” eg; you’re either exercising or not, losing weight or not, studying or not, thinking about the short-term really helps. Research by Dholakia showed that with money management, focusing on the present rather than the long-term produced great savings. For example, focusing on a savings goal for one month was better and more productive, in fact an order of magnitude better than focusing upon a four-month financial goal.
However, for complex tasks such as writing a thesis or developing a strategic plan 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.
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 the pursuit of goals such as term papers or 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 backwards 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 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.
In my next post, I’ll discuss ways to sustain those habits.