As human beings we like to think we are the captain of our own ships and have free will to do as we please, that we have control over our actions. We tend to think that we all have agency and the ability to control the direction we go in.
However recent science has shown that we actually have far less control over our behavior than we like to think. That’s because approximately 43% of our daily actions are habitual — conducted on “autopilot” without a lot of conscious thought or effort.
We tend to have a sense that we are in charge of and take responsibility for everything we do, but most often performance reflects habits, not desires and goals. Therefore it isn’t as easy as assuming changing behavior is as easy as making a decision to simply do something different.
Habits allow us to multitask and they can be good or they can be bad.
Habits are a learning system that we don't have conscious awareness or access to. They're relatively slow to form or break, and habit memory tends to last for years.
We develop habits as we repeatedly do the same thing in a given context and get some reward for it. And because of the reward, we do it again.
Think about standing at the bathroom sink and brushing your teeth or brewing coffee in the morning without a second thought.
This allows us to multitask, and that efficiency is what also makes habits so hard to break. Habits are the first thing that comes to mind, even when you don't want them to.
Occasionally habits that may have benefitted you in the past don't necessarily benefit you today. Often habits are a sort of a shortcut based on past learning about what to do, but they're not necessarily the right thing to do today. And that is the challenge with habits.
Typically, if we want to build a new habit, such as drinking a glass of water when we wake up or incorporating more exercise into our daily schedule, we engage in goal-setting. We simply plan to execute the action, and then we try to follow through. This requires will power, and will power is actually not a very reliable system, because as soon as things start to get difficult, we talk ourselves out of the commitment we made.
‘Free-willed humans’ mistakenly think if we're motivated enough and have enough self-control, we'll follow through without realizing that the circumstances around us, the contexts that we're living in, have a huge impact on how easy something is and how often we can repeat it
The best way to break an unwanted habit is to change the context so that you're not in a situation that activates thoughts of the response that you've given in the past.
So, here’s the trick, to make or break a habit, and the process should involve three things
- Changing the environment
- Making the behavior rewarding
- Figuring out how to repeat it on a regular basis so that it becomes automatic.
In order to make or break habits that stick, hijacking the environment is much more effective than attempting to change into being.
Rethinking behavior change from this perspective can be liberating. Sometimes we end up feeling like failures when we've tried yet again to go on a diet and we're not successful. But it's not so much about you. It's about the environment that you're in and how you control it. Therefore, if you're not able to do something, it doesn't mean you're a bad person,
Here are 3 steps to form new habits:
- Ease up — If something's too difficult, you simply won't do it. If you are trying to lose weight, reduce things in your life that will make it easier to succeed. For example, fill your pantry with healthy snacks, start to follow people on social media that talk about health and fitness, or make a plan to meet a friend weekly for some form of exercise. Make the choice to "do better" easier.
- Make it enjoyable — You're not going to repeat a behavior that you don't enjoy, and you're not going to form a habit for something that you just hate. So even if you've chosen an unappealing habit, find a way to make it fun. Maybe that means having a piece of dark chocolate after a morning run or listening to a book or a podcast while you complete a dreaded task.
- Repeat on a regular basis— On average, based on the research, it takes about 66 days to make a simple health change. The more complex behavior, the longer it might take. Generally, two months is a good "ballpark estimate" for the average person to form or break a habit. And if you miss a day, no need to panic. Habit memory takes a long time to form, but luckily, a single skip doesn't wipe away what's been built up in the past.