The reason it’s so hard to form productive habits is the same reason they’re so effective when they’re in place: It’s all about willpower.
So once we understand willpower, we can better hack the habits.
Roy F. Baumeister, a Florida State University psychologist who has co-authored books on the subject (like, fittingly, Willpower) has studied the way that willpower is a finite resource within your day.
What we call willpower–the ability to resist temptation and privilege long-term benefits over short-term pleasures–comes from the same reservoir of energy that you use up in making decisions. Which has big impacts on how habits get formed or dropped.
“A dieter may easily avoid a doughnut for breakfast,” Baumeister explained to the American Psychological Association, “but after a long day of making difficult decisions at work, he has a much harder time resisting that piece of cake for dessert.”
Habits are super hard to form, then, because when we start trying to form them, we have to pay down an initial transaction cost of willpower–and since we’re innately lazy, that doesn’t sound like very much fun to your lizard brain. But thankfully we are mammals. One of our killer apps is being able to think about the future.
We can recognize that our actions today will shape who were are tomorrow: an insight that helps set ready-to-realize intentions, like learning a skill, switching careers, or landing your dream job.
Armed with the above insight, we can hone in habit-construction hacks: What we need to do is work with, or maybe even exploit, our lazy, ridiculous natures, rather than macho-ing against them. So let’s inform our cunning.
In a yet-to-be-published interview, Happiness Project author Gretchen Rubin stressed the importance of having specificity in your habit construction, since this gives you the most ready feedback. Instead of saying to yourself “eat healthier!” you can say “have a salad for lunch four times this week!” Then, at the end of the day, week, or fortnight, you can look back to see if you indeed did have that veggie-laden midday meal or not.
“Setting big goals is exciting,” advises Pick the Brain blogger Deane Alban, “but starting with small boring goals is more likely to lead to success.”
So if you hate vegetables, maybe it’s two salads a week. Or if you’re trying to start a meditation practice–which, research suggests, enriches just about every part of your life–start by sitting for 5 or 10 minutes a day. And if you’re a couch creature, immediately running miles a day isn’t sustainable, so maybe go for a 15-minute walk.
These micro-actions have a way of re-patterning your biases, Alban explains:
Taking small actions tricks your brain. Your subconscious likes to be in control–it doesn’t like change. A big change often sets up subconscious resistance, but you can sneak a small change by it.
So by doing these small actions again and again–perhaps assisted by a ritual-forming app–we can make a slow but seismic shift in our unconscious resistance. This, we can infer, means that we won’t have to spend so much willpower energy on doing the healthy, productive thing in the future.
There’s some folk understanding floating our there that it takes 21 days to form a habit: A study from the University College of London recently set that to rights. Rather, it’s 66 days until an action becomes something you do without thinking.
For this study, 96 people (which is, to be fair, not nearly enough to be properly statistically significant, so take the results with a grain of salt, or a piece of fruit, if that’s the habit you’re trying to build) were recruited who wanted to form a new habit like eating a piece of fruit with lunch or going for a 15-minute run every day. Then, as PsyBlog notes, they were asked if the action could be done “without thinking” or was “hard not to do.”
The average result was that a “plateau of automaticity” was reached after 66 days: that is, the behavior became as regular as it was going to get. Interestingly, missing a single day didn’t mean that habit had a less likely shot at forming. And, of course, there was a qualitative difference to adoption rates: Drinking a glass of water came much more readily than doing 50 sit-ups a day.
The lesson, then? Maybe they should have started with 20.
Have a favorite habit-forming hack? Please lend us your comments.
[Image: Flickr user Nagesh Jayaraman]