It’s a new year! For many of us, it might be the beginning of new goals, new challenges, new habits and even building healthy habits specific to our health. But now that a few weeks have passed or even a few days into the start of a new healthy habit, it would have been hard to stick to the goal.
Curious to know the reason why almost all of us fail at building a healthy habit? What if you could harness the power of your unconscious mind, by making this process as simple and fun as possible to truly reach your goals? Let’s understand the science behind behavior change and habits and what you can do to make them stick.
What is a habit?
In the context of psychology, according to APA habit is defined as a well-learned behavior or automatic sequence of behaviors that is relatively specific and over time has become motorically reflexive and independent of motivational or cognitive influence—that is, it is performed with little or no conscious intent.
In simple terms, it is a process in which exposure to a cue (opening a room door) automatically triggers a non-conscious impulse to act (turning on the light) due to the activation of a learned association between the cue and the action.
For example, if you walk into the door, and you switch on the light, the light turns on. But when you do that over and over again, your mind takes a shortcut. So your mind is not going through the process of saying, I’m in a dark room, I should probably turn on a light, how do I do that, I should look for the switch – you don’t go through that deliberation or thought process.
The reason is your mind makes these associations between CUES and BEHAVIORS – “if this, then this” – If I have my shoes ready, I can go for a run or if I have fruit on the kitchen countertop, I can eat it. Sometimes as this loop continues, if you ever had a bulb burn out, even then you might still turn on the light because now it has become a HABIT. It’s about your mind making that association of seeing that CUE in a certain place, that triggers the behavior. It becomes a default automatic process.
Habits are hard at the beginning, it will take a lot of self-control and push, but once you hit that PLATEAU, it becomes automatic and may seem less stressful to do that behavior.
As seen from the graph below, research shows that during the habit forming phase more support and self-control is required to build habit strength, but over time it moves to the habit maintenance phase (plateau curve), where less support is required as the habit has started finding its space into the daily lifestyle.
The motivations behind our goals are key in making new habits stick. Here’re 5 tips from behavioral science to keep yourself motivated and stick with your goals.
1. Determine your WHY
When you are just getting started on the journey of adding new things into your routine, it can be daunting at first. To uncover and reach a clearer perspective, it is important to be clearer on your “WHY”.
When you have decided to commit to a certain behavior change, it is important to ask yourself – why have you chosen to do it? Are you doing it because you feel good? What’s the reason behind the new behavior? Framing your personal WHY can create a strong foundation and you’ll be more likely to move further in reaching your goal, as you know the reason behind the behavior and be successful in creating a long-term behavior change.
2. Be Flexible
You may have a structured plan for the day, but sometimes it can get offset due to unexpected scenarios, and you may have to constantly re-evaluate and adjust your behavior so you can continue to make progress even when these new changes happen. You might even give up on adjusting due to the rapid fluctuation of your daily life. This may lead to failure and lack of sustaining the habit. But here’s the thing, a successful and sustainable behavior change is one that goes through a constant improvisation. It is not a one-time set method, but life it is a series of experiments.
To make these small adjustments, it is necessary to set realistic goals, rather than rigid goals that are too perfectionistic. When you start your day or week be ready to embrace the unexpected. Learn to prepare a strategy to still add to your goal to stay on the continuum.
Be flexible, you’re more likely to succeed than being a perfectionist, it’s okay if you’re not strict!
3. Celebration your WINS
Do you celebrate the outcome more than the process? Do you only appreciate yourself after you lost a few pounds? As much importance you place on celebrating the outcome, it is important to celebrate the process more. All that you did every day to accomplish in losing the few pounds. It could be a walk you did every day, practiced intentionally eating? Anything!
Prof. Dan Ariely says, “when trying to develop healthy habits, we should focus on rewarding the behavior instead of the outcome”. Reward every small step you make to achieve your goal! Reward yourself for choosing this path.
Research has shown that celebrating your progress is crucial for your motivation. So reward yourself for choosing this path, no matter how small. Once you start doing this you are unconsciously, you can start activating the reward circuitry in your brain. This helps you continue this journey by releasing chemicals that make your feel the sense of pride and achievement! Acknowledging these emotions can empower you to create successes.
Most importantly, BE KIND to yourself. You are doing better each day! Realize how you are feeling, reflect on how much energy you felt after an early morning workout! Or maybe how you felt after a good 8-hour sleep. communication efforts with your kids.
Taking a conscious pause can help realize how impactful your little effects are. This can help you to stay committed to the process.
4. Develop a pre-commitment
Let’s say you set a plan to wake up at 6:00 am and head to the gym. But the next day, your alarm goes off. Your mind starts giving excuses:
“I’m tired, I wonder if it’s even healthy to go workout when I’m so tired“
“Maybe I could go to the gym in the evening”
“Postpone it to tomorrow and just have a good sleep today“
And you end up hitting that SNOOZE button? We have all been there.
But let’s say you decided to meet your friend or partner in the gym at 6:30 am? May be you already paid for a membership. The chances of you heading to the gym at 6:30 am is higher now, due to the commitment in hand.
5. Design your environment
The environment around us drives our behavior. Ever walked into your kitchen, spotted a bag of chips, and ended up eating them? It might be the first thing you noticed? If you have been there, you know what I mean.
Designing your environment in a way that aligns well with your goals. Start by nudging yourself in the right direction. For example: placing fruits at an eye-level, rearranging your pantry can help sustain habits long-term. By changing the environment we can change the behavior, says Prof. Dan Ariely. This reduces the friction in the environment that might impede achieving your goals.
Don’t let the list overwhelm you, be kind to yourself and enjoy the process! Here are a few takeaways!
- Create a good support system (partner, friend) to be accountable for your progress.
- Start small with one habit at a time.
- If you notice yourself neglecting your habit on a particular day, don’t let it throw you off track. You can always start over again the next day!
- Give some time to develop a new behavior, stay patient and this is a 30-day crash course!
And before you even know it, you would soon become a habit master!!
Looking to sleep better, eat a bit healthier, move more, build a practice of self-care, or just want to feel more energy each day? Let Shapa be your virtual coach. Shapa focuses your program based on YOUR lifestyle and YOUR goals so you can build healthy habits and achieve lasting results. Learn more about the Shapa difference
About the author:
Sujatha is the study manager and content creator extraordinaire on the Shapa Health team. With a Bachelor’s in Psychology and Master’s in Clinical Psychology from India, she furthered her academic skills in Applied Behavior Analysis from Ball State University, Indiana, USA. Currently, she resides in Chandler, Arizona. She has 4+ years of expertise as a mental health professional trained in psychometrics and psychotherapy working with children, adolescents and adults. Over the past 2 years, Sujatha developed a passion for mindful living, neuroscience research, human behavior and decision making, and is driven by curiosity and gratitude. As part of the Shapa Health team she designs personalized missions utilizing behavioral science and mindfulness techniques to improve the personal health journey of the Shapa community. When not at work, she enjoys baking, hiking and spending time with family. Connect with Sujatha on LinkedIn.