Changing Your Life Using Habits

One of the most effective ways to get ourselves to regularly do a behavior is to make it automatic through habit formation. Once something has become a habit we no longer have to worry about forgetting to do it, or worry about lacking sufficient motivation. We do the behavior without even trying to do it, without even thinking about it. Habits make behavior effortless.

We can program ourselves with new habits by following a very simple procedure. If you want to regularly do behavior B after stimulus S occurs, then for a certain number of repetitions you simply need to force yourself to do B just after S every time that S occurs. Over time, the behavior B will start occurring after S automatically and without thought. The more unvaried and frequent the stimulus S is the faster the habit will be to learn. And the more repetitions you do, the stronger the habit will tend to become. If there is no obvious stimulus for you to link the behavior B to, just pick any stimulus that occurs with roughly the frequency that you want to do B. So if you want to do B four times a week, pick a stimulus that naturally occurs about four times a week. You can even use previously learned habits as stimuli. So the habit of combing your hair can use the habit of brushing your teeth as its stimulus.

Typically, people let their habits form automatically. They learned to brush their teeth as soon as they enter the bathroom in the morning because they happened to do that enough times in a row. They learned to get dressed automatically as soon as they pick up a pair of pants because that’s typically what you do after you pick up a pair of paints. They learned to walk a particular route to work without thinking about it because they consciously chose to take that route a sufficiently large number of times. They stop having to think “I should brush my teeth this morning”, or “I should put these pants on that I’m holding on”, or “I should take this particular street to work.” They don’t need to remember to do these behaviors, nor do they need to motivate themselves to do them since they happen automatically without thought.

We tend to view ourselves as being in control of our future decisions. For example, we imagine that we can choose, if we so desire, to suddenly start engaging in healthier eating. And yet, for many of us, years will go by with us failing to make or maintain many of the life changes that we believe to be important. We simultaneously maintain both the view that we want to behave in a healthier fashion and that we have the ability to consciously control our behavior, and yet this pair of beliefs ends up being inconsistent with the way we actually behave.

One of the reasons we fail to change is that controlling future conscious behavior is much more difficult than pledging to change future behavior. Sure, when there is no cake in front of you it is easy to tell yourself that you will eat healthier. But when you begin to salivate your priorities change. The closer your face is to chocolate cake, the more you are likely to value the deliciousness of that cake compared to your health. You right now sitting far away from cake is sacrificing little to make a pledge to avoid it. You right now aren’t giving up anything tangible to make that pledge. But in order to keep that pledge, you when you are in front of the cake has to give up delicious enjoyment. It is easy for you who just eat the cake half an hour ago to regret the decision. That version of you doesn’t get to experience the deliciousness of the cake (except as a faint memory), but does have to live with the extra empty calories. But for you currently staring at the cake, the decision is much harder.

Sometimes where willpower fails, subconscious behavior can succeed. If telling yourself day after day that you should exercise more doesn’t work, try turning exercise into a habit instead. Buy some weights or an exercise video, and every morning as soon as you leave the bathroom having just brushed your teeth, immediately begin your exercise routine. At first, you may not remember to do this, or may find it difficult to muster up the willpower. So post a big, noticeable piece of paper on your bathroom door as a reminder, block the time out in advance in your calendar, tell your roommate to remind you, and whenever you aren’t in the mood to do the exercise, remind yourself that skipping it this one time may significantly reduce the habit formation (so there is more at stake than just this one day of exercise). Make sure that you begin the routine immediately after exactly the same stimulus each day (teeth brushing in this example). Once you’ve done this enough days in a row (ten or fifteen times is probably enough) you will find yourself automatically getting ready to exercise as soon as the stimulus is over. You no longer will have to worry about remembering to do it, and you won’t have to fight with yourself to get in the mood. When the habit is strong enough, you’ll just find yourself walking over to your weights and picking them up.

Or suppose that you want to start eating healthier. This begins with keeping healthy food around the house. So train a habit of immediately buying your five favorite very healthy foods as soon as you enter the supermarket. Always grab them from the shelves in the same order, as that will make the habit form faster, and make you less likely to forget any of the items. Once you’ve completed enough repetitions, you’ll start doing it automatically as soon as you come through those supermarket doors. As far as training yourself to eat these foods goes, design a habit so that, right after you finish your exercise routine each morning, you immediately go to the fridge and grab one of these healthy foods for your breakfast. Only these five pre-selected healthy foods are allowed. You don’t want to have to think carefully about which foods are acceptably healthy (habit formation should involve tasks that don’t require conscious analysis). Soon you’ll find yourself eating at least one healthy meal per day without effort.

Want to raise your mood in the mornings? Build a habit of smiling for twenty seconds just as you get out of bed (make the smile as realistic as possible, including the crinkling of skin around the eyes, and you’ll notice your mood rise immediately). Want to remember to shave exactly once a week? Always do it just after you get home from your Saturday yoga class. Want to read more? Do it for 20 minutes immediately upon arriving home from work each day.

Habits are quite easy to form, and are capable of powerfully altering future behavior. With only a bit of effort, we can purposely design habits that will improve our lives.

One thought on “Changing Your Life Using Habits

  1. Ilya Kipnis says:

    Hmmm…you know, this has very many excellent applications. Imagine if high school physics/calculus/engineering teachers tried giving this talk and said “at 7:00 PM, force yourself to work on these several problems for 20 minutes” and that became a habit.

    Imagine how intelligent our next generation could be.

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