Anyone who has ever made a resolution to get more exercise, to waste less time on Facebook, or to become more organized about their work already knows that it is incredibly hard to change our behavior. Once a behavior has become a habit or a part of our routine, it’s very difficult to replace that habit with something new.
Why is it so hard to change our habits?
If my goal is to get fitter, and I have the equipment, time, and motivation to do so, why is it so hard to stick to a goal like going running twice a week? I might manage my goal for a few weeks, but if I’m like most people then I won’t maintain the new habit in the long term. Even when I know that the new habit will make me feel better and will make me happier overall, it’s still tough to maintain.
The problem is that as humans, we are far less rational than we like to believe. We’d like to think that when we’re presented with clear evidence that a particular action is possible and would make us happier, then of course we’d change our habits. But in truth, we don’t weigh choices rationally. In a previous blog post we talked about an experiment where kids would rather eat one marshmallow now than wait ten minutes and get two marshmallows. It might surprise you to learn that adults do much the same thing. An experiment at New York University offered adults a choice: they could receive $20 now or wait a month and receive more money then. The majority of people chose to have the $20 now, even though they would have received more money if they had waited. The essential problem is that, as human beings, we are bad at weighing our future happiness against our immediate desires.
How can we influence our own behavior?
Given this problem, what can we do to change our behavior? There are two main approaches to this issue:
Firstly, we can get more information about the issue. In the case of exercise, we could learn more about the health benefits of exercise and how it could improve our life. Information like this can provide long term motivation in setting goals, but given that we do not make decisions rationally, it might not be so helpful in getting us out the door for a run right this minute.
The other approach to behavior change is to provide incentives. These can be either positive, like getting a reward for completing a new habit, or negative, like giving money away when you don’t complete the habit. Both positive and negative incentives can be effective, so it’s best to use a combination of the two. It also helps to keep us engaged if these incentives are fun and immediately rewarding.
The role of the environment
If you want to make new habits, there’s something important to understand about human psychology and how it applies to behavior change, and that is the role of the environment. People often think of humans as being “brains first” or “genetics first,” as if there is a core real “us” which is placed into the world. But this isn’t the case. Rather, our brains (and our minds) develop in response to our environment. Your brain and your mind are profoundly affected by the world around you – to such an extent that if you were taken completely out of your environment, you wouldn’t be “you” for much longer.
Instead of thinking of yourself as a pre-formed brain which should make rational decisions based on self-interest (which is not a helpful way to think when you’re trying to change your behavior) think of yourself as a bundle of intentions which responds to environmental cues. Information comes from the environment, it enters our brains, we respond to this information through behavior, and behavior drives outcomes.
What does this mean in practice? What actions can you take to make it more likely that you’ll stick to your new habits? Here are a few suggestions to promote behavior change:
- Remove “pain points” to make it easy to do the right thing. For example, have your running gear washed, ready, and in one place, and leave your running shoes by the door. Then whenever you do want to go for a run you won’t be put off by the hassle of finding your gear.
- Put physical reminders in your environment. For example, if you want to work on your finances each morning then put your accounting book on top of the papers on your desk. You’ll have to physically pick up the book to get to your desk so you’ll be reminded and incentivized to do your accounting.
- Reward yourself for meeting your goals. The trick for this tip is to pick an appropriate reward. If you reward yourself for going running by eating fast food, then you’ll undo all of your good work. Instead, try something small like ticking a box or adding a sticker to your diary. It might sound childish, but a physical reminder of your progress like a sticker can be great motivation.
- Related to this, do track your progress over the long term. For example, you could record how many days per week you do your accounting, or track how many miles you run each time. You’ll be able to see yourself improving over time, which will reinforce that each run adds towards your long term goal of getting fitter.
- Get social support. One of the biggest factors in whether someone will be able to successfully quit smoking isn’t whether they use nicotine patches, or if they’re educated about health risks, or even whether they enjoy cigarettes – it’s whether they have support from their social circle. Having friends, family, and colleagues support you in your new behavior will be a big help in getting you to stick with it.
Next time, we’ll talk about perception and the ways that we perceive the environment around us – correctly and incorrectly. So check back soon for more.