Creatures of Habit
Do you ever wonder why some people seem to effortlessly stay fit or have such strong self-control? How is it that some people can have a delicious chocolate cake in their refrigerator and have the willpower to pass on a slice and grab a piece of fruit instead? Finally, what makes it easier for some people to keep their homes organized, and for others it is a constant battle?
The NPR Podcast Hidden Brain series, “Creatures of Habit: How Habits Shape Who We Are And Who We Become,” examines how some people are able to stick to their resolutions and good habits while others fall short.
Wendy Wood, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California and author of "Good Habits, Bad Habits," has some insight on this. She has been rigorously studying how habits work for the past 30 years. According to Wood, habits are mental associations.
In this podcast, Professor Wood gives us some insight on experiments that prove that it is not necessarily willpower or self-control that is at play. Rather, it is the practice of forming habits that trick our brain into going into autopilot. For example, she describes that after you have spent a good amount of time driving a car, it becomes somewhat automatic – the mechanics of driving fades to the background and you can think about other things such as singing along with the radio or having a conversation while you’re behind the wheel.
The health-conscious person who is able to avoid eating a delicious cake, has simply made it a routine to reach for fruits and other healthy foods every time she opens the refrigerator, that she never notices the cake that is right in front of her.
Give Yourself a Reward
According to a study from the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes over two months to turn a routine become a habit. There are several strategies we can use to make it easier to stick with a new resolution or habit. Wood mentions that she has an elliptical machine in her house and hates to exercise, but decided to reward herself while she was exercising to motivate her to get on the elliptical. Wood’s favorite television show is a competitive cooking show, so she told herself she could only watch it while she was using the elliptical. Soon, she found that she looked forward to that exercising time and it became a habit.
Give yourself a reward while you do a chore or immediately afterward.
Put your favorite music on while you clean or do the filing.
Treat yourself to a bubble bath or a bouquet of flowers
immediately after you complete a task you dread doing.
To Promote Good Habits - Make it Frictionless
A successful strategy mentioned in the podcast is to reinforce good habits by making the habit frictionless. In other words, remove all of the obstacles that keep you from doing any particular task. So, if you’re trying to eat healthy, don’t keep unhealthy foods in the house. Cut up fruits and vegetables and put them at eye level in the refrigerator.
Add Friction to Bad Habits
Conversely, if you are trying to break a bad habit, add friction to make the habit more difficult. A great example of this are the successful campaigns and laws that were enacted to lower the use of cigarette smoking. In 1970, warning labels from the Surgeon General appeared on cigarette packages. Next, they put restrictions on vending machines and placed cigarettes behind counters in stores making them more inaccessible. The cost of a pack of cigarettes continues to rise and laws now ban smoking in public places. All of these restrictions caused smoking rates to plummet. Think of ways you can add friction to your bad habits. Spending too much money? Leave your credit cards at home and only carry a small amount of cash.
Still Need Help? Try These Strategies
Stacking – the idea is to combine two tasks together to make it easier to accomplish a task you are putting off. If you hate filing, do it while watching your favorite TV show or do your filing at the same time your child is doing homework. Pairing these activities together will make the task part of your regular routine and increase the likelihood that you will do it.
Cues trigger us to do a task at a specific time. For example, do your filing on a specific day, such as the 1st of the month. Or, make a plan to always file right after “x.” That could mean doing your filing immediately after you get the mail or right after you finish the evening dishes. Doing something at a certain time reinforces a habit. I see this habit in play every night at home. Every time we watch TV at night, my husband immediately makes a bowl of popcorn. It’s automatic. The TV cues an immediate reaction. It’s similar to getting into a car and fastening the seat belt. You don’t even think of it consciously, it becomes automatic.
Add Structure & Processes
Finally, adding structure & processes makes it easier to keep your routines. When you are trying to achieve a certain goal, it’s a lot easier to stick with it if you write down or plan for how you are going to get there. Instead of saying, “I’m going to lose 10 pounds by this summer;” tell yourself, “I am going to walk 30 minutes each day.” Another way to reinforce your goals is to add reminders to your calendar or on your phone. If you find yourself distracted while doing a task such as filing, put a timer on your desk and set it for 15 minutes and concentrate on doing it until the timer goes off.
If you’re trying to get your house organized, break it down into smaller tasks such as organizing one drawer per day.
Try different strategies for different situations. I put on my favorite music while I clean the house which makes it more fun, and when I’m done I get an immediate reward in the calm and satisfaction of a neat and organized home. Another routine I have is to find recipes and plan meals for the upcoming week and make a grocery list immediately after I finish reading the Sunday paper. It’s automatic, enjoyable and the reward is that I don’t have to spend time planning what to make for dinner every night.
I wish you all the best on your goals and encourage you to listen to this thought-provoking podcast and try implementing a new habit this week.