Discover Yourself – Creating Lasting Behavior Change – Forming New Habits

We all know that making a lasting change to our behavior is tough. Whether someone is trying to develop new work skills, to live in a healthier way, or to make more time for self-care, creating a change that lasts is a challenge. It’s not enough just to have good intentions: people need to make sure that their new behavior becomes a habit in order to make it stick. Fortunately, research in psychology can provide information on how to make behavioral changes that last.

Public Health Versus Individual Change

Much of the scientific research on behavior change looks at issues of public health, in the context of medical personnel or government workers trying to change the behavior of large groups of people. For example, interventions to discourage people from smoking (such as the indoor smoking bans which were introduced in many countries over the last 15 years), or to encourage them to eat healthily (such as Britain’s “5 a day” fruit and vegetables campaign) try to change the behavior of the public as a whole. Similarly, public health campaigns about washing hands to reduce the spread of disease, or anti-drunk driving initiatives are generally performed on a country-wide level.

But there are lessons from these large-scale campaigns that can be informative about individual behavior change. If individuals want to form new habits, then they can benefit from looking at what works on a group level and finding ways to apply these lessons to their own lives. For example, a key requirement of a behavior change campaign is that it must promote a directly actionable activity. It is no use for someone to decide that they want to eat more healthily if they do not have a plan for what healthy eating should look like. To be successful, this person will need a specific goal or set of goals to work for, such as eating several portions of fruit and vegetables a day, only eating fast food once a week, or switching to low calorie sodas.

Setting Goals

As the example of eating more healthily demonstrates, people need to have not just an intention to change but also a specific and achievable goal to work from. Setting goals is key to motivating people to change, but only if the goal is both challenging and achievable.

If a person tries to start a side business, change their diet, exercise regularly, and spend more time with their children all at once then they will almost certainly fail – this is just too many changes at once to be feasible. And then, when the person inevitably fails at one or more of these goals, they will give up on the whole endeavor and revert back to their previous behavior. Just look at the new year’s resolutions that everyone makes, where they spend a few weeks in January trying to change their entire life, only to give up within a few weeks with none of the changes sticking in the long term.

It is better to start with one change at a time, and to set reasonable goals for that one change. And a good way to set useful goals is to focus on effort rather than achievement. If someone wants to start running and they set a goal of running a mile in under eight minutes by the end of the month, if they are out of shape then they may well fail and become discouraged. But if the goal is going running twice a week, at whatever speed they can manage, then they can focus on acquiring the habit of going running instead of looking at their achieved speed. After a month or two of running regularly, it will become part of their routine and they will likely learn to run faster anyway. This kind of incremental effort-based change is much more likely to stick than trying to achieve many changes at once.

Importance of the Environment

Most people believe that what they think causes their actions. It seems obvious that thoughts cause behaviors, like when someone thinks that they are thirsty so they decide to take a drink of water. But in fact, this view underestimates that importance of unconscious motivations and the environment.

Very often, people follow cues in their environment more than they are aware of. A famous experiment had people sit in front of a bowl of soup and eat as much as they wanted – but sometimes the soup bowl was designed so that it would re-fill itself without the person noticing. When eating from the re-filling bowl, people ate much more soup than they did otherwise. How much they ate wasn’t determined by how hungry they were so much as it was influenced by the amount of soup that was available.

The practical upshot of this research is that if someone wants to make a change to their behavior, then they should make a change to their environment. In the example of how much food to eat, if someone wants to eat less, then they should try using smaller plates to make their portions look bigger. And the same principle works for other behavior changes too: if a person wants to write every day before going to work, then they should have their writing materials visible and easily accessible on top of their desk each morning. If someone wants to spend less time using screens, then they should sit in a different room without a TV or computer in it but with plenty of books and magazines.

Habit Formation

It is also easier to stick to a new habit if it becomes part of a regular schedule. If someone wants to reply to customer emails but feels like they never make the time to do so, then they can set a regular time when they first arrive in the office or right after lunch each day to do so. After a few weeks of doing this task at the same time each day, it will become an automatic habit and the person will no longer have to force themselves to perform it as it is part of their routine.

Behavior change is just one area where psychology research can be helpful in business and in other areas of life. To learn more about how psychology can benefit you, visit www.discoveryourself.com.

The Challenge of Behavior Change

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.

Practical advice
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.