Rethink everything you know about habits – and change your life

Want to build good habits that stick? Surprisingly, it’s not about willpower or self-control.

It’s a familiar story. A new year rolls around, we chalk up those familiar resolutions (lose weight, regular exercise and so on) and then… nothing.

Life gets in the way and before we know it we’re berating ourselves about our lack of self-control and feeling like a giant failure, again!

Although we felt inspired and motivated to change bad habits (this was going to be the year), we weren’t able to carry through. So why do we stumble?

What we’re getting wrong about changing habits

University of Southern California psychology and business professor Wendy Wood has spent three decades exploring the science behind forming habits, and says we need to change our perspective.

“People often think that behavioural change depends on willpower, and so they need to make a decision and just stick with it – the trouble with that is it’s hard, and so they don’t stick with it,” says Prof Wood, author of Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes that Stick.

“In my surveys, over 60 per cent of people said that to form a habit, you have to exert willpower and have a lot of self-control. That’s just not true.”

So how do you build good habit that will go the distance?

Step 1: Habits need to be rewarding

“The tricks we’ve learnt from habit research are, first – make it rewarding, so that it is something you enjoy or that you feel proud of,” Prof Wood says.

“When you’re rewarded your brain releases dopamine, a feel-good chemical. It also brings together information and sort of ‘stamps in’ the behaviour, which helps to automate it and forms the mental shortcut that is a habit.”

In her book, the habits guru cites a study on US college students’ exercise habits.

Those who rated the exercise as a fun activity that made them feel good reported it was more habitual and automatic.

Those who went out of guilt or to please others failed to form a robust habit, even though they exercised just as often.

Step 2: Consider your ‘context’

All of our actions are influenced by our surroundings, says the habits expert.

“By context I mean everything around you – the location you’re in, the time of day, the people around you – they all play a part in our behaviour,” she says.

“The ‘friction’ in our everyday surroundings makes some actions easy and some more difficult.

“If you’re having trouble going to the gym, reduce the friction. Don’t sign up to one far from home, find one close and convenient, which makes the behaviour easier.”

Step 3: Repeat

Creating habits is a long game, so don’t give up, says Prof Wood.

“Contrary to what you may think, the best evidence we have is it can take two to three months to form a simple habit, something so automated you don’t have to think about it.”

The good news? Occasional missteps won’t erase your emerging habit.

“This is a crucial point. You can miss a day or two and you won’t go back to zero, habit forming doesn’t require perfection,” she says.

How to break bad habits

“Changing the cues that activate habits is what disrupts them,” Prof Wood advises.

“People who want to stop checking their phone need to put it away where they can’t see it.

“Even putting it face down on the table will make it less likely that you’ll pick it up or see it.”

In other words, remove the cues that drive the bad habit you want to ditch.

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Written by Liz McGrath.