It’s the 2nd of January. You pull off the label to your brand new gym tights and pull them on, take a swig of your ultra-green smoothie, and brave the cold. You’re ready to start your new healthy habit.
You give up after a week and a half.
Old habits, it would appear, are hard to break. The process requires persistence which, in turn, requires overcoming obstacles, difficult times and discouraging outcomes. Reverting to old habits often seems easier. In order to shift habits, it takes understanding of their workings – and their power.
So what are habits?
According to Professor Wendy Wood, habits are ‘mental representation – or a mental shortcut – that helps you repeat what you’ve done in the past’. In other words, habits are automatic. Being part of our primary operating system, we enact habits without much thought, performing actions or responses that have been successful or rewarded in the past.
‘Becoming healthier’ as part of your New Year’s resolution is unpleasurable and, sometimes, downright painful. At first, there seems to be no immediate rewards or successes (anyone who has attempted a ‘couch to 5k’ having never run before will understand the agony of this often doomed first attempt at getting fit). At the very beginning, you don’t look better and you certainly don’t feel better. Reverting to the old habit – cuddling on the couch with a bag of crisps – offers a small, false sense of reward. For the short-term, at least.
What is worth remembering is that habits are learned behaviours – they are the associations we make between responses, context and rewards. The more we are rewarded in some way, the more we repeat the behaviour until it becomes second nature. Until it becomes a habit.
Not to say this is easy: habit formation is hard. But habit disruption is harder.
In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear writes: “If you’re having trouble changing your habits, the problem isn’t you. The problem is your system. Bad habits repeat themselves again and again not because you don’t want to change but because you have the wrong system for change”.
Basically, ‘system[s] for change’ are the ways by which we can achieve our goals. Take our theoretical ‘get healthy’ example. If we plan to go running every day as a partial means of achieving this, but have set no time aside to do so, we are setting ourselves up for failure. Similarly, if we plan to eat healthily but our partner would prefer we didn’t, this isn’t an ideal system for change.
This is why incentivising our new habit – at least to begin with – is imperative in the road to behaviour change. The motivation to go out for a run in the cold and rain might be hard to muster, but if you’ve promised yourself a treat if – and only if – you do it, going out becomes that much easier. After a while, the habit isn’t new anymore; it’s automatic. And the longer it’s performed, the stronger it becomes. And the harder it is to change.
As James Clear sees it: ‘Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of our habits multiply as we repeat them.’
Interested in using behavioural science to understand your audiences better? Our second behavioural insight article delves into choice architecture, which you can read here. Alternatively, you can write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org to get started on your behavioural insights journey.
This article was written by Shayoni Lynn, CEO & Founder at Lynn.