I listened to a brilliant ‘Weekend University’ podcast all about how habits are formed and what can help us to make changes in our lives. Wendy Woods, author of ‘Good Habits, Bad Habits’ broke down some of the mechanisms that put our brains on autopilot—for better or worse—and tells us how to start fighting back.
When you are wanting to make a change, think about what behaviours will help you get there. Then repeat that behaviour, in the same way, regularly. It’s the repetition and regularity that contributes towards success.
Finding a way to make a behaviour fun helps to form a habit. Because then we will want to repeat it, which feeds into the repetition mechanism.
It triggers a dopamine release in the brain. When dopamine is released, it lasts around a minute, so it is helpful to build in inherent rewards that make you love the activity. For example, watching a trashy programme that you enjoy whilst you are on the treadmill makes the activity enjoyable and repeatable.
It doesn’t work nearly so well to make yourself feel good after a week of doing the activity. It has to be something you experience at the time for those feel-good chemicals to take maximum effect.
Stability is key. Doing something the same way each time helps to build habits. For example, we might make ourselves a coffee each morning, at the same time, in the same mug. It is predictable and regular. We are almost on automatic pilot.
Mark Zuckerburg, founder of facebook, famously wears the same outfit every day. This is a way that he has automated that part of his life life, to free up his mind for bigger things.
If you learn to stack new behaviour onto existing habits this really helps to ingrain new habits into our routine. For example, if you want to be more consistent with taking medication, you could put pill bottle next to your toothbrush. It puts a new activity with an already established habit. In this way we ‘stack’ new habits into existing habits.
Adding ‘friction’ into the environment has an impact on how easy or difficult it is to do something. For example, in retail ‘eye level is buy level’ – the more expensive items are put at eye level, as this is the easiest for customers to see and therefore buy. The friction of having to bend up or down to see and buy cheaper items, is enough to put people off.
A study on the environment was trying to get people to use the stairs rather than the lift. So they tried putting signs up ‘save the environment, take the stairs’. There was no effect on behaviour. Then they tried adding friction – they slowed the door close on the lift by 16 seconds. It was annoyingly slow, so a third of people took the stairs instead. When they returned lift to the normal speed, the people continued with stairs. Friction was enough to form new habits.
People who are able to structure their environment to make good habits, have done this through habit rather than willpower.
Put structures in place to ring-fence your important thing. If you are not successful, be willing to rethink your approach and structures. Habits come because you’re not thinking ‘shall I start? When? How long for?’ You simply turn up and concentrate on what you’re doing when you are there, as it was pre-decided that that is what you would do.
For example, a successful author wanting inspiration said ‘I only write when lightning strikes, but luckily she strikes every morning at 9am!’
Breaking bad habits
To break bad habit, it is useful to add friction. For example, if you wanted to look at your mobile phone less, make it harder to do. For example, taking your phone and putting it face down is a first easy step. The reduced visibility makes it harder to access. You might put it somewhere slightly out of reach, such as a zipped pocket in bag so you have to think before you pull it out. You have added the friction which helps you to make a decision – is this something I want to do?
In internet shopping, the Amazon ‘1 click to buy’ concept, is all about reducing friction to make customers buy quickly without thinking. So if you were trying to be more controlled about internet shopping, it would be a good idea to ‘reverse engineer’ the process, and deliberately don’t use that feature. That gives you time to consider if you want to make the purchase – if it’s affordable, good value, you really need it etc.
How could you use friction and habit stacking to change your habits? Don’t forget that rewards and repetition are also an important part of the process. I’ve started following @profwendywoods on Instagram for more science-based tips.
Credit: Information taken from ‘Science of Changing Habits’, Wendy Woods, USC professor of psychology and Behavior Change for Good Initiative team scientist, from Weekend University Podcast.