Condition yourself to perform a behavior you wish to turn into a habit in a specific environment...in other words: set your environment up to consistently create preferred habits.
Our conscious minds can help develop habits...but not so much in terms of exercising willpower. Instead, we can tap into our conscious thought processes to scheme ways to make the habit as frictionless as possible.
People are more likely - and willing - to continuously engage in a behavior if it two things: EASY and FUN.
The goal of forming habit-forming is to ensure the cues of performing X habit in Y environment become so strong and conditioned, that you will subconsciously (and unintentionally) revert to the X habit whenever placed in Y environment.
WHY SO MUCH 'FRESH START' EMPHASIS ON JANUARY 1ST?
Why do we treat January 1 as if we will be born-again? As better decision makers? More empowered humans? Well it’s been around longer than you might think - dating all the way back to the Roman Empire! (source). Julius Caesar decided to create the “Julian Calendar”, which, in his mind, better synced up with the sun. Caesar declared January 1 the first day of the year to honor the god of new beginnings, Janus (source). On this day, The Romans celebrated the New Year by not only offering sacrifices to Janus, but also reflecting back on the past year, and making amends to “improve” in this new year (source).
As I’ve scrolled through Instagram over the past few days, all I’ve seen are endless resolution prompts: “How To Make A New Year's Resolution” or “Start 2021 off right with this new diet plan!”, “Build a better budget as your New Year’s Resolution”, “Cook one new thing each week in 2021”, or “Stop cursing” - the list goes on. While some of these are extremely helpful and motivating, the idea of actually setting these resolutions extends far beyond just simply implementing these new ‘ideas’ or ‘goals’ as ‘habits’.
The idea behind January 1st or this “Fresh Start Effect” (source) has always boggled me. Why don’t we just start NOW? Why do we try, then go awry for one day, then convince ourselves that we’re doomed from this one mess up, then give up, then wait until January 1st to attempt to “better ourselves” yet again? Well, believe it or not, according to a 2014 study by Hengchen Dai et al., there are psychological ties to certain periods, or “landmarks” - such as a new year, month, birthday, or even academic semester. As humans, we subconsciously associate these landmarks with new “mental accounting periods”, allowing us to place psychological distance from our past imperfections, and the potential to create a new, positive self-image (source).
Habits are: cognitive (mental) associations that we form when we repeat an action over-and-over again in a given context with a reward so many times that we subconsciously automate.
Condition yourself to perform this habit / behavior you’ve trained yourself to elicit in the given associated environment.
Ensure the cues of performing X habit in Y environment become so strong and conditioned, that you will subconsciously (and unintentionally) revert to the X habit whenever placed in Y environment.
This may seem counterintuitive or opposed what you may have previously read, but: Conscious will power is NOT the driving force behind substantial behavioral change. Our conscious minds in some ways can help, but not so much in terms of exercising willpower...but rather scheming ways to make the habit as frictionless as possible. 43% of our daily habits are subconscious. Meaning, similar to driving, we are not making conscious decisions around nearly half of the actions we take in a given day. Said best by Wendy Wood, "Habits allow us to focus on other things…Willpower is a limited resource, and when it runs out you fall back on habits." (source). The habit you’re attempting to develop might not be the easiest behavior or most low-effort, BUT, once developed, it’s actually what you usually do that you’ll tend to fall back on. Once in place, habits will take on a life of their own! They become automatic and self-reinforcing...even if the alternative is objectively easier (i.e.: making coffee at home vs. stopping by Starbucks for a $5 coffee). When you build a habit, it’s like putting on a set of unconscious mental blinders that will then protect you from temptations & distractions. Much easier said than done...I know! 🤔🙃😱
To promote certain behaviors (i.e.: introduce positive habits), we need to reduce the struggle, the stress, and the friction. Conversely, to inhibit or limit a behavior that has crept its way into the “habit” category, we should introduce more struggle or friction. People are more likely - and willing - to continuously engage in a behavior if it two things: EASY and FUN.
Gym to House Distance
Goal: Measured how far people live from their gym, and whether or not that distance affects their gym-attendance.
Participants: gym goers
Results: *not shockingly* The closer people live to their gym, the more frequently they go: 5 miles away, participants only went 1 time per month (further the distance, the more friction present);3.5 miles away, participants went 5 times per month (i.e.: note as much friction getting there)
What we can infer: the less friction or impediments placed in your path to performing a desired habit, the more likely you are able to (1) repeat it daily and (2) begin to deem it “easy”.
Popcorn, Part 1
Caveat: Now...don’t get me wrong - popcorn is my absolute guilty pleasure!!! So don’t let this study fool you into thinking I limit my popcorn intake :) but it’s an awesome one to identify the factors that disrupt and maintain habit performance.
Goal: to find out whether or not people eat out of habit; elaborated, to find out whether or not a given habit (eating popcorn) in a given environment (at a movie theater) was disturbed by a novel factor (the staleness / bad taste)
Participants: Two groups of people were given a box of fresh popcorn and a box of stale popcorn to *optionally* eat whilst watching movie trailers; one of these groups reports always ordering popcorn when they went to the movie theater (Group A), while the other report either occasionally or never ordering popcorn when they went to the movie theater (Group B).
Results: People who do not normally order popcorn (Group B) only chose to eat the fresh popcorn, while the people who often eat popcorn (Group A) ate 70% stale popcorn, despite the fact that they reported HATING the stale popcorn (source)
What we can infer: the cues of eating popcorn in a movie theater were so strong, the group that reported always buying popcorn at the movies continuously threw the popcorn in their mouths - despite the fact that they reported hating the taste.
The cues of performing X habit in Y environment become so strong and conditioned, humans will subconsciously (and unintentionally) revert to the X habit whenever placed in Y environment.
Popcorn, Part 2
Goal: does introducing an impediment or “friction” affect subconscious habit performance?
Participants: Two groups of people were given a box of fresh popcorn and a box of stale popcorn to *optionally* eat whilst watching movie trailers; one of these groups was asked to consume the popcorn with their non dominant hand (i.e.: introduced a “barrier” or impediment to the routine) (Group C), while the other group was able to eat with their dominant hand (Group D).
Results: People who were asked to eat with their non-dominant hand (Group C) reported eating much less popcorn than those eating with their dominant hand (Group D). (source)
What we can infer: Making the behavior (eating popcorn) more thoughtful via introducing more friction (having to grab popcorn with a non-dominant hand) forces us to think more about our action, dragging us out of the subconscious headspace where habits live.
The cues of performing X habit in Y environment, when inhibited by a novel stimulus or added element that provokes more thought to complete the habit, will often offset the human’s subconsciously tendency to revert to the X habit whenever placed in Y environment.
Contrary to popular belief, the idea of giving yourself a reward at the end of a week for performing X amount of ‘wellness’ goals (or any goal really!) is not technically forming a long-term habit because that reward is not present when you’re performing the actual wellness behavior itself. Instead, we should (as noted earlier in the blog) use our conscious brain to scheme ways to make the habit and the environment for that habit to develop as (1) fun and (2) frictionless as possible.
Example: While eating dessert, smoking = immediate gratification
Example: Tough workout, eating brussel sprouts = longer-term gratification and require intrinsic motivation
SUMMARY | THE KEYS TO DEVELOPING HABITS
Make repetition automatic
Repeat behavior everyday
Example: purchase a hydro flask (I recommend 40oz one with a straw lid) that you keep with you at all times!
Example: set a timer in your phone (morning / noon / evening) to go on a walk everyday with a podcast; I listen to roughly 6-7 podcast episodes per day, and have really been able to identify a few different shows that I would really love to share with you! When you go on your 20-30 minutes stroll today (or over the weekend!), feel free to dive into one of these four epic 'sods!
Beene Brown & Abby Wombach, "New Rules of Leadership": here (theme: Leadership)
Ashley Flowers, "Very Presidential": here (theme: History)
Sarah Blakely & Guy Raz, "How I Built This - Spanx": here (theme: Entrepreneurial / Business)
Stephen Dubner, "Freakonomics - When Your Safety Becomes My Danger": here (theme: Economics / Business)
Remove friction from behaviors you wish to continue
Example: parking closer to the staircase in office building to promote less elevator use
Example: place fruit platter or veggie medley in the middle of the buffet line, as opposed to at the end or off to the side, to decrease “out of sight / out of mind” mentality
Example: locate a gym that is less than 5 miles away from your home; OR a room in your house that you associate with fitness / disciple.
Consciously figure out ways to link these healthy behaviors with short terms rewards
Example: make the vegetables pretty and add choice-seasonings - make it fun and creative combinations. Check out my "10-minute dinner bowl" blog post for ideas!
Example: listen to a bomb-ass music playlist while you workout? Set an alarm at the same time each day (for consistency)? Sleep in your jogging clothes the night before so you don’t
Add friction to behaviors you don’t want to engage in