Happy new year! Or should I say, “habit” new year! No? Well, 2022 is going off to a good start.
But I did want to sneak in that joke because this is definitely the time people have resolutions to finally do that thing that they haven’t or couldn’t do before. Unfortunately, many fail. Or perhaps they succeed for a bit, but let go of their resolution after a while.
One reason could be that it is hard to form actual habits. Like, really hard. Even worse, it is hard (maybe even harder) to change habits.
You have to be conscious.
You need to have intentions.
There has to be motivation (and the right kinds of motivation).
Other factors are working against you like…your brain which thinks, “Ok, it’s 9am, I’m looking around and seeing this tin of cookies, better eat it like I normally do.” Guess what, brain, I am not going to let you control my life anymore [said with the most contempt and disgust you can imagine].
However, we can do something about this. The science on habit formation is pretty well-documented at this point, though, of course, there is still work to be done. We’ve learned a lot about why people get stuck and what we can do about it. Let me share some tips with you based on science and from my own life.
I wake up at 6am pretty much every day plus or minus 30 minutes or so (without an alarm clock; except under extreme or just really strange circumstances). When this tidbit comes out in conversation, people are generally amazed (or they try to one-up me, like, “oh I actually wake up at 5am every day and so I am like in full swing of things by 6am, but that’s cute.”).
Usually my response to their amazement is that, well, sometimes it sucks. Sometimes I want to sleep in or honestly need more sleep. But, my brain and body (with my help) has made this a habit. Why? How?
So, I used to be really haphazard with my sleep schedule. Going to sleep late. Waking up about 10, 11, noon. And at the time, I was at community college. A newfound freedom and schedule, and so this habit was quickly picked up as it is somewhat in alignment with my high school days where I would stay up well passed my bedtime to just like chat on AIM or rush to get work done because I had been chatting on AIM for hours on end before (bonus points to anyone who remembers AIM or at least knows what it is).
However, in community college, I started to have this shift in perspective due to my schedule. I almost never saw my parents. There were 1 or 2 days in particular where I went at least a day without even seeing my parents. It wasn’t for me. It wasn’t the life I wanted to live. So, I changed it.
It was hard, but worth it.
What did I do?
One main thing that keeps us stuck in old habits (whether good or bad or somewhere in between) is that our environments are stable. Doesn’t sound bad. We want stable environments. However, when everything is the same, our brains are really good at keeping track of that and start to connect pieces of the environment or time or whatever to our actions and thoughts. Habits are truly at a level below awareness.
There are ways to counter this. We need to change our environment. Some are very drastic, but it doesn’t have to be. Some drastic ways would include moving or starting a new career. You really change your environment in these situations and have the opportunity to build new habits because the cues that were keeping you stuck are no longer there. This in it of itself does not guarantee that you will change your habits. You could very well form the same ones again, just in a new location.
In my case, there was enough of a change of pace where I could change my own habit that was forming: sleeping late at night and sleeping in during the morning. I did this in a bit of a brute force fashion. I just started setting my alarm super early and forced myself to get up. I wouldn’t necessarily start my day at first. I would just make sure that I came downstairs to see my mom before she went to work.
Brute force isn’t necessarily the way, however. You can only do that for so long. You need motivation. This can come externally or internally.
And there was some extrinsic motivation here of course. It was nice to see my mom happy to see me in the morning and to be able to help her get things ready before she left. But, if that was the only thing, this wouldn’t last if, let’s say, I moved out. This is why things like reminders aren’t good for building habits. It might play a role at first, but if you always have a reminder or an alarm, you become dependent on the device rather than build the habit, according to research. Perhaps this is also that feeling of like, “something feels off, but I don’t know what. Am I forgetting something? Oh well…” when your alarm doesn’t go off or you accidentally miss it.
This is where intrinsic motivation comes in.
Intrinsic motivation helps us keep going without the external rewards we get. If there is a bigger meaning or goal behind your actions that directly affect you, that helps form a habit and keep it going. For me, I inherently started feeling better about life, about school, about my own progress, and about my relationship with my mom. These are all things within myself that keep me going. And then at some point, it stops being intentional and it just is.
At some point, that intention, that motivation, and those behaviors become automatic. This is also known as procedural memory. And procedural memory sticks.
So, now, let me ask you. Do you think that people with these good habits also have better self-control?
One might think so. Think of a person who goes to bed at 10pm and gets up at 5:30am every single day. It looks a lot like self-control. In reality, it isn’t necessarily. That person is just used to things going a certain way. If it became a temptation to stay up, they probably would. But, good luck trying to make that happen when they have already built the habit of avoiding those temptations that might keep us up such as anything and everything on the internet.
Just a couple more pieces of general information on this topic. I’ll apply habit formation to a few other topics (e.g., diet, social media use) in future posts. For now, I’ll leave you with this.
Habits can make us do things even if we don’t want to. Or perhaps put another way, even if we don’t crave it. There was a study done on smoking where, as long as people were in the right (or perhaps wrong) environment, they were much more likely to smoke even if they didn’t have a craving for a cigarette. Simply having those environmental factors in line with your habit and previous behaviors was enough for the procedural memory to kick in. This likely happens for many other things as well and not just addictive substances like those found in cigarettes.
The last point for this post is that I want to reiterate that we can do things to change our old habits. Earlier I spoke about how changing environments can help with that. However, we can’t always do those drastic changes of up and buying a new place to live. Instead, we can do smaller things. These can go by the names choice architecture and environmental reengineering. Fancy terms right? Maybe say that to one of your friends the next time you want to help them with changing habits. But what do these terms mean?
The gist of it is that you want to create your space to best fulfill the right thoughts about yourself and your ability and also enable you to easily do the behaviors you seek to do. An example from research comes from people that were trying to change their diet. They simply put a fruit bowl in the middle of the kitchen. With this bowl, people can start to change the way they think about themselves. Imagine waking up and seeing a fruit bowl every day. You could honestly already pat yourself on the back and say, “wow, I must be pretty healthy.” These affirmations and positive appraisals of yourself keep you going.
Also, how much easier is it to eat fruit now that it is already here, in your face, and in a bowl?
Create your world so that you can live in it the way you want.
And that’s it. These are some general principles to change habits, if you want. I will have more articles for specific actions and habits throughout this month as well, so check them out.