Have you ever wanted to wake up earlier, go to sleep earlier, eat more healthily, go to the gym, be more productive, meditate daily? You start for a few days, possibly a week or so, but eventually you give up.
I know I have.
Why does this happen and is there a science to forming habits?
The Current Problem
Often when we want to change our behaviour, be it our diet, weekly exercise or productivity at work, we wait until a big moment like deciding our New Year resolutions. A combination of realisation, regret and huge motivation leads us to attempt to ‘fix’ everything at once, changing several areas of our daily routine at the same time. We all know too well that motivation can be fleeting, so more often than not this shock to the system is simply too much and many of us revert back to our previous habits. This is particularly evident in habits that don’t fit seamlessly into our routine, for example having to travel 20 minutes out of town to the nearest gym.
At the start of building a new habit, each day can feel like a struggle and we question if it’s ever going to be worth it. However there is hope! The light at the end of the tunnel is day 21. According to many studies, if we are able to stick to a habit solidly for 3 full weeks, we internalise the process and it starts to become second nature.
Is there a science to habits?
So you may have heard about the 21 day threshold before, and think ‘that’s great, but what else is out there that can help me actually stick to them?’
Behaviorism, also known as behavioural psychology, is a theory of learning based on the idea that all behaviours are acquired through conditioning.
Conditioning occurs through interaction with the environment and it is believed our responses to these environmental stimuli is what shapes our actions.
This also helps us understand why we behave the way we do and discover patterns in our actions and behaviours.
Understanding this sequence of events is how people can understand that making the smallest of changes can lead to life changing benefits.
The 4 stages to stick to new habits (the habit loop)
Let’s say you’ve been starting your days feeling stressed and the habit you want to start is meditating in the morning for 15 minutes before you start your day.
The cue triggers your brain to initiate a new behaviour. This creates a bit of information in the brain that predicts a reward. The brain analyzes your internal and external environment for hints of where rewards are located.
For our case of meditating, this cue could be the morning alarm, if you want to start straight away, or perhaps when you put your coffee mug in the dishwasher after breakfast. Over time you consciously register this regular morning activity as a cue to start your meditation.
Craving is the second stage of creating a new habit, this craving is linked to a desire to change your internal state.
Different people are attracted by different cravings, for example for a person who loves to buy clothes shopping online, seeing their favourite clothing on their favourite store, the thoughts, feelings and emotions of the person are what transform a cue into a craving.
This is of course the same when you are trying to create positive habits. With meditating you are craving the peace, calm and feeling of being grounded in the present. You may have additional cravings to practise your new habit, for example when you start to feel overcome by stress. Rather than reach for a glass of red wine, you create positive cravings to reach for the yoga mat.
The response is where you turn the thoughts into the action. The response can vary based on factors such as difficulty, ability, motivation and the amount of friction associated with the new behaviour compared to your previously daily routine.
The best way to hack this process is to reduce all elements of friction. If you want to go on that morning run, have all your running gear laid out on the floor next to your bed before you sleep. If you want to meditate, have your yoga mat and candles laid out ready for when you wake up. Having these in place will enable a smooth transition from cue to response and keep you on track.
The final part of creating a new habit is the response delivering the reward. The cue is about noticing the reward in the first instance, the craving is the desire of said reward and the response is about receiving the reward.
All behaviours and habits are driven by people who have the desire to solve a problem and improve. Rewards close the feedback loop and complete the habit cycle.
Your reward from meditating will be personal to you, but often includes a sense of calm and focus. This reward is what drives the whole cycle and is the goal of developing a sustained habit.
Let’s do this
For many of us, we’ve picked up a few undesirable habits over lockdown. The good news is that you have the power and control to create new positive habits in order to achieve whatever you want.
These new skills will give you the power and control to create new positive habits which will set up the right conditions for you to achieve any of your bigger goals!