What’s the most effective way to change habits?
I’ve been diving deep into this topic lately, and here’s what I’ve learned. Relied mainly on two sources:
- [Review article] Wood, W., & Neal, D. T. (2016). Healthy through habit: Interventions for initiating & maintaining health behavior change. Behavioral Science & Policy, 2(1), pp. 71–83
- [Podcast] Huberman Lab, The Science of Making & Breaking Habits
Why habits are important?
Habits allow for certain actions to happen by default whenever a certain context/cue is encountered. You wake up and you brush your teeth. It’s not something you do with any cognitive load. It just happens.
This automaticity of habits makes them powerful because you can pretty much rely on you executing the actions you’re habitual to. For example, research has found out that healthy eaters don’t inhibit themselves in front of unhealthy snacks. Instead, they simply eat better and exercise without conscious thought. That’s the power of habits.
What are habits?
I love how Wendy Wood describes habits in her article (linked above):
Habit is repeated performance of rewarding actions in stable contexts
This definition involves three ideas, all of which are essential for formation of habits:
For an action to become habit, it has to be repeated a certain number of times. There’s no golden rule for how long does it take for a repeated action to become a habit, but it certainly ranges in a few weeks to much longer (sometimes even a year).
b) Stable contexts
The cues that indicate to your mind that an action has to be performed have to be similar each time the action is repeated. These cues could be time, place or people related. For example, if you’ve purchased and eaten popcorn at a movie theater enough number of times, entering the movie theater becomes a stable context for you to trigger your habit of purchasing popcorn.
This is why, for making new habits, it’s often useful to piggyback on existing habits, since they provide stable contexts. Some people call this technique habit-chaining.
c) Rewarding actions
Your actions have to lead to some reward in order for them to become habits. Think about the kick of the cigarette, the sweetness of ice-cream, or the fresh feeling of brushing teeth.
Researchers have found out that it’s better if the rewards are uncertain and variable, like in a slot machine or social media timeline. Sometimes you hit the jackpot (of money or information) but most of the time you get the boring old outcome. This keeps you hooked and makes it easier for the action to become a habit.
How to break old habits?
Adopting new habits often includes breaking old habits. By their very nature of automaticity, habits are quite hard to break via willpower or conscious thought. What you can do instead is to engineer your surroundings.
a) Make it hard to execute a bad habit
The harder it is to execute a bad habit, the less likely you’ll execute it. So if you’re trying to quit smoking, do not keep cigarettes in the house. If you’re trying to not eat in front of the TV, cancel your Netflix subscription.
b) Make it easy to execute a good habit
The easier it is to execute a good habit, the more likely you’ll execute it. Keep fruits on your table, and you’re more likely to eat them instead of candy.
c) Catch yourself doing a bad habit and immediately do something else
Whenever you catch yourself executing a bad habit that you want to do, immediately stop and do something else entirely (ideally a good habit). This disrupts the automaticity and gradually primes your brain to associate the context that triggers a bad habit with a replacement good habit.
For example, if you’re trying to quit smoking, as soon as you catch yourself smoking, start doing push-ups or take a walk or call a friend. Do anything healthy that feels good (reward).
Increase your odds of habit building
There are a number of tips and techniques that can help in habit-building.
a) Implementation Intentions
Intentions are what we want to do. For example, “I want to lose weight” or “I want to quit smoking”.
Implementation intentions are intentions with an added context of how exactly are you going to implement your intention. They’re of the type:
“If I encounter this context, I’m going to do that action“.
As you can see, implementation intentions are specific. For example, if you’re trying to lose weight, you can decide something on the lines of: “If I see a pizza slice in front of me, I’ll first eat a salad and then decide if I still want to eat the pizza”. Or perhaps, “When I go to McDonald’s, I am going to only order from their healthy menu”.
Research has found out that if implementation intentions increase the odd of achieving your goals.
b) Step-by-step visualization of habit-execution
While trying to form a habit, it helps to visualize the exact steps you’ll execute for performing a habit. Don’t just think in abstract. Really visualize the exact context in which you’ll be performing the habit and the different actions you’ll execute.
Such visualization primes the brain towards executing the habit whenever the visualized context is encountered.
c) Increase your motivation by visualizing how you’ll feel if you fail to build the good habit
To overcome friction while forming good habits, from time to time, visualize exactly how you’ll feel if you are unable to stick to the habit. Visualizing success also helps, but we’re more driven by fear. So imagine your worst case scenario if the habit isn’t in your life.
If you’re unable to make exercising a habit, will you become fatter? Unable to fit in your favorite dresses? Your blood sugar through the roof? Increased bills of medicines?
Again, don’t just think abstractly. Visualize you being in a situation where you couldn’t stick to a habit that’ll you want to.
d) Execute habits with the highest friction early in the day
For most people, the circadian rhythms drive how alert they’re. Our cortisol is typically at the highest level early in the day and continues to fall down throughout the day. This is why we are most alert in the early part of the day.
So, it makes sense to try to build a habit that’s hard for you to execute in the first part of the day. For example, if you’re trying to build a habit to read books, do not try to read them in the evening since your alertness (and will power) will be at the lowest. Instead, read them in the morning when you’re feeling most alert.
Habits with low friction that are easier to execute can be scheduled later in the evening. For example, the habit of walking more can be chained after dinner.
To sum up, habits are extremely powerful because they’re automatic. This makes healthy habits worth sweating over. Good habits improve your life on autopilot.
Also see my previous essay: The long (psychological) guide to achieving your new year resolutions.
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