The Science of Habits

Have you ever heard that it takes 60 days to form or change a habit? Well, that’s actually not true. I used to write about that being true, but new research and a mindshift change for me made me realize that habits can be very easy to create or change, IF you understand the science behind habit formation and use that science when you are trying to change or create a habit.

Whether you realize it or not, a lot of your daily behavior is composed of habits. These are automatic behaviors that you do without thinking. You do them the same way every day.

Think about all the habits you have that you don’t even remember trying to create. Perhaps you put your keys in the same pocket when you walk out the door, or maybe you have a routine that you go through every weekday when you first wake up.

You probably have routines around hundreds of things:

    • How you leave the house for work
    • What you do as soon as you get to your place of work
    • How you clean your house or apartment
    • How you do laundry
    • How you shop for a gift for a relative
    • How you exercise
    • How you wash your hair
    • How you water your houseplants
    • How you take your dog for a walk
    • How you feed your cat
    • How you put your children to bed at night

And so on.

How did you end up with so many habits if they are so hard to create? If you understand the science around how habits are formed, you will see that there are some fairly simple things that you can do that make habits very easy to form and even relatively easy to change.

For most people, most of the time, habits are created unconsciously and they are carried out automatically. Habits help us all to do the many hundreds of things we need and want to do in our lives. Because we can carry out a habit without having to think about it, it frees up our thought processes to work on other things. It’s an efficient trick that our brains have evolved to make us more efficient.

It all started with saliva – Let’s take a look at the science behind forming habits. If you took a Psychology course you probably have heard the name Ivan Pavlov. Ivan Pavlov won a Nobel prize in 1904 for his work in medicine. He researched the digestive system, working primarily with dogs. But while he was doing research on digestion he discovered something that surprised him.

Pavlov was measuring the amount of saliva that dogs produce as part of digestion. He noticed first that dogs would salivate when they saw food, even before they tasted it. Then he noticed that if another event, such as a bell, or the footsteps of the experimenter was paired with the food, the dog would eventually start salivating at just the sound of the bell or the sound of the footsteps. This is called classical conditioning.

It goes like this:

First you pair two things together, a stimulus (food) and a response (salivating):

Stimulus (FOOD) results in Response (SALIVATING)

Then you add an additional stimulus:

Stimulus 1 (FOOD) + Stimulus 2 (BELL) results in Response (SALIVATING)

Over time you will be able to remove the original stimulus, and have just the additional stimulus elicit the response:

Stimulus 2 (BELL) results in Response (SALIVATING)

By now you are probably wondering what this has to do with you. You are probably not trying to create a salivation habit! Classical conditioning is the starting point for understanding automatic behavior and habits.

For example, let’s take a look at smoking. We start with:

Stimulus 1 (SEEING CIGARETTE) results in Response (LIGHT UP AND SMOKE THE CIGARETTE)

Then we add:

Stimulus 1 (SEEING CIGARETTE) + Stimulus 2 (FEELING BORED) results in Response (LIGHT UP AND SMOKE THE CIGARETTE)

Until we get:

Stimulus 2 (FEELING BORED) results in Response (LIGHT UP AND SMOKE THE CIGARETTE)

Keeping this original research in mind, let’s explore what we now know about creating or changing habits.

1. Small, specific actions are more likely to become habitual – Let’s say you decide to create an exercise habit, and you tell yourself “From now on I’m going to get more exercise.” This is unlikely to turn into a habit because it’s too general/vague, and it’s too big.

What about “I’m going to exercise three times a week.” That’s a little better, but still not specific enough. “I’m going to go for a walk every day after work” is better because it is more specific. Or even, “When I get home from work the first thing I’m going to do is change into my walking clothes/shoes and take a 30 minute walk.”

2. Making the action easy to do increases the likelihood that it becomes a habit – Once you have identified the specific small action then you want to make that action easy to take. In the exercise/walking example, you will be more likely to engage in the habit if you make it easy. For example, put out your shoes/clothes right near the door so when you get home you see them.

3, Actions that involve physical movement are easier to “condition” into a habit – With the walking/exercise example, that’s easy. You are going to reach out your arm and grab your workout clothes.

If you are trying to create a habit that is not very physical, for example, a habit where at the beginning of the work day you pause and decide on what are the most important things for you to do that day, then you will want to create a physical action to take, for example, have a special whiteboard near you and a special pen you use to do this task

4, Habits that have auditory and/or visual cues associated with them will be easier to create and maintain – One reason that using your mobile phone is so habitual is it lights up when you have a message, and makes buzzing or chirping noises when there is a text. These auditory and visual cues grab our attention, and increase the likelihood that we will develop a conditioned response.

The Best Way to Change an Existing Habit – The best way to change an existing habit is to create new one to replace it.

Let’s say you have a habit of coming home at the end of a work day, grabbing a soda, turning on the TV and sitting on the couch. You’d like to stop doing that because before you know it an hour has gone by and you haven’t started dinner or gotten any exercise.

How do you change that habit? You have to go back to the very beginning of the stimulus/response cycle and replace the current response with a different response.

This is what is happening with the existing stimulus/response:

Stimulus (WALK IN DOOR) results in Response (GRAB SODA, TURN ON TV, SIT ON COUCH)

To change this, decide what you want to replace it with, for example, let’s say you want to go for a walk as soon as you get home. The best thing to do is to position your walking shoes and perhaps a change of clothing right by the door you walk into.Then for a few days purposefully and consciously grab the shoes and clothes and put them on as soon as you walk in the door, and go for a walk.

Within 7 days you will have conditioned the walk in door to a different response:

Stimulus (WALK IN DOOR) results in Response (Grab shoes and clothes, change, and go for walk)

Give it a try. Pick either a new habit you want to create, or an existing habit you want to change. Next, figure out the stimulus and the response. Make sure the action is small, easy, attached to something physical, and, if possible use a visual or auditory cue. Do the new habit for a week, and see what happens. You may be surprised at how easy it is to create or change habits.

For more information:

The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg

or check out BJ Fogg’s site: https://www.tinyhabits.com/

The Science of Why New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work (And What To Do About It)

Notebook and penHow many New Year’s resolutions have you made in your life? How many have you successfully accomplished? The estimate is that less than 10% of New Year’s resolutions are actually achieved (University of Scranton Psychology Professor John C. Norcross, Ph.D.). There’s a lot of homespun folksy advice out there this time of year about how to make sure you reach your New Year’s goals, but I thought I’d share the actual science of how to change behavior.

There’s two main lines of brain and behavior science that influence New Year’s resolutions: The science of habits and the science of self-stories.

Let’s start with the science of habits.

A lot of New Year’s resolutions have to do with making new habits or changing existing ones. If your resolutions are around things like eating healthier, exercising more, drinking less, quitting smoking, texting less, spending more time “unplugged” or any number of other “automatic” behaviors then we are talking about changing existing habits or making new habits. Habits are automatic, “conditioned” responses. You get up in the morning and stop at Starbucks for a pastry and a latte. You go home at the end of work and plop down in front of the TV.  Here’s what you need to know about the science of changing existing habits or making new ones:

  • Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not hard to change habits IF you do so based on science.
  • To change a new habit you essentially have to create a new one, so whether you are changing an existing habit or creating a new one, the “scientific” method for doing so is the same.
  • You have already created literally HUNDREDS of habits that you have now, and you don’t even remember how they got started, so creating habits can’t be that hard or you wouldn’t have so many of them!

To create a new habit you have to follow these three steps (based on B.J. Fogg and Charles Duhigg)

  1. You MUST pick a small action. “Get more exercise” is not small. “Eat healthier” is not small. This is a big reason why New Year’s resolutions don’t work. If it’s a habit and you want a new one it MUST be something really small. For example, instead of “Get more exercise” choose “Walk 1/3 more than I usually do” or “Take the stairs each morning to get to my office, not the elevator”, or “Have a smoothie every morning with kale in it”. These are relatively small actions.
  2. You MUST attach the new action to a previous habit. Figure out a habit you already have that is well established, for example, if you already go for a brisk walk 3 times a week, then adding on 10 more minutes to the existing walk connects the new habit to an existing one. The existing habit “Go for walk” now becomes the “cue” for the new habit: “Walk 10 more minutes.” Your new “stimulus-response” is Go For Walk (Stimulus) followed by “Add 10 minutes.” Your existing habit of “walk through door at office” can now become the “cue” or stimulus for the new habit of “walk up a flight of stairs.” Your existing habit of “Walk into the kitchen in the morning” can now be the stimulus for the new habit of “Make a kale smoothie.”
  3. You MUST make the new action EASY to do for at least the first week. Because you are trying to establish a conditioned response, you need to practice the new habit from the existing stimulus from 3 to 7 times before it will “stick” on its own. To help you through this 3 to 7 times phase make it as EASY as possible. Write a note and stick it in your walking shoe that says “Total time today for walk is 30 minutes”. Write a note and put it where you put your keys that says: “Today use the stairs.” Put the kale in the blender and have all your smoothie ingredients ready to go in one spot in the refrigerator.

If you take these three steps and you practice them 3 to 7 days in a row your new habit will be established.

Now let’s tackle the science of self-stories.

The best (and some would say the only) way to get a large and long-term behavior change, is by changing your self-story.

Everyone has stories about themselves that drive their behavior. You have an idea of who you are and what’s important to you. Essentially you have a “story” operating about yourself at all times. These self-stories have a powerful influence on decisions and actions.

Whether you realize it or not, you make decisions based on staying true to your self-stories. Most of this decision-making based on self-stories happens unconsciously. You strive to be consistent. You want to make decisions that match your idea of who you are. When you make a decision or act in a way that fits your self-story, the decision or action will feel right. When you make a decision or act in a way that doesn’t fit your self-story you feel uncomfortable.

If you want to change your behavior and make the change stick, then you need to first change the underlying self-story that is operating. Do you want to be more optimistic? Then you’d better have an operating self-story that says you are an optimistic person. Want to join your local community band? Then you’ll need a self-story where you are outgoing and musical.

In his book, Redirect, Timothy Wilson describes a large body of impressive research of how stories can change behavior long-term. One technique he has researched is “story-editing”:

  1. Write out your existing story. Pay special attention to anything about the story that goes AGAINST the new resolution you want to adopt. So if your goal is to learn how to unplug and be less stressed, then write out a story that is realistic, that shows that it’s hard for you to de-stress, that  you tend to get overly involved in dramas at home or at work.
  2. Now re-write the story — create a new self-story. Tell the story of the new way of being. Tell the story of the person who appreciates life, and takes time to take care of him/her-self.

The technique of story-editing is so simple that it doesn’t seem possible that it can result in such deep and profound change. But the research shows that one re-written self-story can make all the difference.

I’ve tried both of these techniques — creating new habits using the 3-step method, and creating a new self-story. The research shows they work, and my own experience shows they work.

Give it a try. What have you got to lose? This year use science to create and stick to your New Year’s resolutions.

What do you think? What has worked for you in keeping your resolutions?

For more info:

Timothy Wilson’s book Redirect:

Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit:

My book, How To Get People To Do Stuff

B.J. Fogg’s website:  tinyhabits.com