New habits in a new year: why is change so hard?

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It’s hard to escape them, in the start of a new year: resolutions filled with good intentions. We want to start – or stop – new habits.

You may have thought about starting to do more excercise. Or to stop smoking. Eat more vegetables. That sort of thing. Good intentions generally involve habits. We want to stop or start doing certain behaviour. And most good intentions don’t really fall through.

Do you want to change something in your behaviour, private or for work? Learn how to use the force of habit to your advantage.

Habits are precicely habits, because they are entwined with our behaviour. With merely good intentions they are very difficult to change!

New habitsUsually good intentions are considered to be a private matter. You are the one who should have the strenght and perseverance. When they fail, it’s your fault. You should have worked harder. This focus on personal perseverance is wrong. Most of our habits are the result of existing underlying systems that are much more influencial then will-power and strength.

An example:

My new year’s resolution is I want to stop checking my mobile phone all the time. If I do not succeed it is not merely because I did not have perseverance or will-power. Because the underlying system is that mobile phones are designed to make me hooked. First of all, I am expected to be productive, thus use my phone for work, even in the evenings. Also, there are all kinds of mechanisms in place to make me want to check for a new email, for a like or response. And last, it might be expected that I respond to colleagues or friends quickly.

All this means it’s nearly impossible to make a change in my mobile phone use without addressing these underlying systems.

For a real lasting change we need to change the context.

What do we know about habits? What are they, and why are they so hard to change?

About 45% of our behaviour is done daily, in the same place, at the same time and in the same way, according to a Duke University paper. This is automatic. We’ve done it, without realising we did it. We don’t make a conscious choice for these automatic, repeated behaviours, says Charles Duhigg in The power of habit. Daily repeating habits make use of the oldest, most efficient parts of the brain.

The force of habit makes it hard to change behaviour. We tend to keep doing, thinking, and feeling what we’ve done, thought, or felt before. Habits make us conservative. Routines are so central in our lives that the force of habit is like an incredible force of nature. The neurological explanation is: the more often you repeat behaviour, the deeper it is ingrained in your brain. Think of habits like a path in the grass that has been walked all the time, and leaves an ingrained earthy path.

The brain uses a stimulus to call on these ingrained patterns. Like an alarm clock going, for example, which makes you start your daily morning routine. The action results in a reward (waking up fresh, seeing the sunshine, drinking your coffee). The brain wants to turn everything into a routine. That can be done on automatic pilot, so it requires a minimum of effort to get to the reward.

Most stimuli are more subtle than an alarm clock. As soon as habits are formed, it’s no longer our motivation that sets us into action, but the stimuli in our environment: the time, place, or the people we are surrounded with. When the context remains, we keep doing our (bad) habit.

Why is it not enough to simply want to do new habits?

Research show that simply wanting to change behaviour hardly has any influence on a sccesful result. But current habits are a good predictor of what people will do in the future. Because habits are stubborn. Once stored in your brain, they keep existing (Bas Verplanken en Wendy Wood – Interventions to Break and Create Consumer Habits).  It is extremely hard, if not neurologically impossible, to delete an old habit. Not enough will-power in the world can change that!

How big is the force of habit? And can we use this to our advantage in making new habits?

When you get a specific stimulus that is followed by a specific action which includes a reward than the stimulus and the action are becoming firmly connected. This connection is stored in the structure of your brain. Since changing this structure is extremely difficult (or neurologically impossible) we need another approach then just a good resolution and will-power.

In order to succesfully start a new habit we can use the force of habit, by connecting your new habit to an old one. Use an existing stimulus (a place, a moment, a mood, etcetera) and find out which reward is the result of it. Then choose to do your new habit. But you need to be very specific in your new habit. Be precise when you want to start a new behaviour. Make it small, so it is easy to do. Big vague change is harder than small steps that are precise. And try to make it social: having pressure by sharing your new habit with others will helpo you do it together.