Stop breaking habits: this is the science of making habits really stick

Written by Wendy Wood

Whether you want to try a new fitness regime, spend less money or get more sleep, this scientific approach to stop breaking habits will be your secret formula to success.

Are you looking to make a change in your life? You might have tried before and failed – most of us have. In fact, less than 20% of New Year’s resolutions even make it through February.

But this year can be different. How? First, you need to learn more about the science of behaviour change.

Maybe you are trying to make a single change, like setting up an automatic savings deposit from your monthly income or downsizing your phone plan. To do these things, you draw on brain systems involving executive control. You make the decision, add a shot of willpower, and voila, it’s done!

But most resolutions aren’t single decisions. Instead, we tell ourselves we want to exercise more, save money, spend less. These are repeated behaviours – in other words, your go-to habits.  

Habits involve different neural circuitry to single behaviour changes. They activate a relatively separate part of our brain from our conscious, thinking selves. You can make a determined decision to spend less, but your habit memory persists. For example, when surfing the internet, you will automatically think of your favourite shopping sites. At around 5pm, you start thinking of what to buy for dinner. This is the way habits work – our daily contexts (such as times and places) bring to mind thoughts of what we have done in the past to get a reward.

You can exert some willpower and stop yourself spending for today. But self-denial is ironic – simply by quashing a desire, we give it extra energy to plague us in the future. That’s why you can’t stop thinking about that new electronic gadget you passed up or those new shoes you stopped yourself from buying.

It doesn’t have to be this way. You don’t have to remain in the trenches, fighting to stay motivated and exert control. 

The key to mastering habits is to realise that we can’t will them away. Old habit memories still persist, regardless of your decisions. That unwanted behaviour continues to spring to mind when you are in familiar contexts.

But it’s not all bad news. Instead, you can reverse-engineer your habits. Once you understand how habits work, you can reverse the process and control the triggers to your unwanted habits.

Stop breaking habits: try adding friction

One way of doing this is to try adding friction, or external forces, to make the behaviour more difficult to perform. Retailers already know the power of friction. We are less likely to purchase items on the bottom shelves in a store than those at eye level (also called buy level). Online, we are less likely to make a purchase when it requires us to make two clicks instead of just one.

The implications are clear for saving money. Make your purchases less automatic. Don’t enter your credit card number online so that it autocompletes a purchase. Use cash whenever possible instead of credit or debit cards. People spend less with cash because they have to carry the right bills, make change, and experience a loss when spending. 

Physical distance is another source of friction. Maybe your resolution is to get more exercise. Based on phone records, people who traveled about 3.7 miles to a gym went more than five times a month. However, those traveling about a mile and a half more went only once a month. That small difference –about a mile and a half – separated those with an exercise habit from those who exercised rarely.

Again, the implications are clear: reduce friction on exercise. Choose a gym on your way home from the office. Keep your gym bag always at-the-ready. Own multiple workout outfits so that one is always clean.

Smoking rates are an impressive illustration of the power of friction. Almost 50% of Britons used to smoke. Now, that number is closer to 16%. Taxes, bans in public places, and restrictions on advertising reduced cues and created friction, or external pressures, that hindered us purchasing cigarettes and smoking.  

Stop breaking habits: change your cues

If friction doesn’t work for you, then there’s another strategy to reverse-engineer our habits: Change the cues in our everyday contexts that activate them.

The cues that trigger our habits change naturally when we start new relationships, jobs, or move house. When cues change, we have a window of opportunity to act on our goals and desires without any conflict from old habits. 

Maybe your resolution is to reduce your energy footprint. It’s easier if you take advantage of changes in cues. In one study, people with strong environmental values who had recently moved to a new city mostly took the bus or cycled to work. Those with similar values who were long-term residents did not act in environmentally friendly ways – instead, they mostly drove to their destinations. When cues triggering old habits change, we are freed-up to act in ways consistent with our current values.

So, take advantage of the next time you move house, start a new job, or have other changes in your life. You have a window of opportunity to establish new habits that are significantly different from the ones you had in the past.

Even without relocating, you can change the cues that trigger unwanted habits. People who have successfully made large changes in their life often report changing cues, such as finding a new group of friends or taking advantage of a holiday.

The implications are clear. If you want to get more sleep, then make your bedroom a screen-free zone, so that you are not cued to use your phone, laptop or e-reader instead of sleeping. If you want to eat more healthfully, try taking a new route to work instead of the one that goes past the café where you usually buy a cappuccino and a croissant.

With these reverse-engineering strategies from habit science, you can successfully free yourself from the constraint of bad habits and form the good ones you resolved this year.Good luck!

Good Habits, Bad Habits by Wendy Wood, out now, Macmillan, £20

Images: Getty, Unsplash

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