advertisement
advertisement

Why Our Brains Don’t Respond To Our Attempts At Habit Change

We often try to change our behavior by reinforcing negative actions. Here’s how to reframe your motivation and finally follow though.

Why Our Brains Don’t Respond To Our Attempts At Habit Change
[Photo: Flickr user Kreg Steppe]

The human brain is a habit creation machine.

advertisement
advertisement

Your brain wants to find routines that have succeeded in the past and allow you to repeat those actions again in the future without having to think about them explicitly.

Although you may sometimes go out of your way to create a habit (like when you practice a musical instrument or sport), most of the time these habits are formed in the course of your daily routine. You sit at your desk each day at work with your email open. The icon at the bottom of the screen for the program is the same, and you probably put the email window in the same place on your screen. Because you check your email repeatedly throughout the day, you develop habits to look for a badge saying you have new email and to interrupt what you are doing periodically to check your email.

At the start of the year, it is natural to want to do things to make yourself more productive. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to focus on behaviors that get in the way of your productivity and set the goal to stop those behaviors.

If you were going to try to be more productive in 2015, what would you do? You might start with a list of five things that get in your way of being productive (checking email too often, browsing the internet unnecessarily, going to too many meetings, etc.). Then, you would focus on reducing these behaviors that waste your time.

You could think of this strategy as setting negative goals: check email less often, go to fewer meetings, and so on. They are negative goals, because they refer to actions you are not going to take.

advertisement

Unfortunately, the brain mechanisms that develop habits cannot learn not to do something. No matter how many times you successfully avoid checking your email, your habit learning system will still prod you to check it again when you are in the situation where you normally check your email.

So, negative goals are doomed to fail, because they do not create a desirable set of habits.

As I discuss in my book Smart Change, the alternative is to set positive goals. That is, focus on actions you are going to take that will ultimately conflict with the behaviors you want to stop. Rather than checking your email first thing in the morning, take some time to write, to read new articles in your area of expertise, or to work on big projects. Your email will be there waiting for you when you choose to check it. By focusing on the actions you will take, though, you give your habit creation system a chance to operate.

To create positive goals effectively, you have to put in a little effort to plan for the future.

Think about the behaviors you want to stop

When do you do them? Where? You may not even be entirely sure. If you are doing things by habit, then it may not be obvious when you are performing the undesirable behaviors. That means you may need to take a week and just observe yourself to find out what you are doing.

advertisement

Find new behaviors

Find new behaviors that you can perform in situations where you used to do the thing you are trying to stop. A key to successful behavior change is to make the new behavior something that you will do consistently in that particular situation, so that the new behavior becomes associated with that setting.

Change your Environment

See if you can make changes to your environment to make the new and desirable behavior easy to perform and the undesirable behavior hard to perform. If you want to check your email less often, keep your email program shut off except when you need it. Set an alarm for those times when you want to check email, and keep the program off otherwise. That way, the behavior you don’t want to perform is hard to do.

advertisement
advertisement