- By Ian Bradley
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In my previous post, I discussed various ways to develop new behavioural habits. The question is: how do we sustain them?
Put that new habit into a larger category: It is important to put daily tasks, especially newly developed habits, into mental categories that reflect your basic values. In other words, 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.
Morph a “journey” metaphor into this larger thematic category. A 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.
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.
How long until it’s groved? 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.
Rewards: Attaching rewards to a 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 enjoy. 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 about your activity or talking to people about the habit you find less than compelling. In other words, let the activity stimulate your curiosity.
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 with compassion and slowly start again.
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. Good luck with your own habit formation journey.