Habits are like being on autopilot, and they’re the key to achieving your goals.
Habits aren’t resolutions: they’re the commitments to change you make on January 1, your birthday, or when you’ve had some kind of revival. Nor are habits behaviors.
Instead, habits are impulses that cause you to do certain things with little or no conscious thought. It is a learning mechanism that connects what you have done in the past with the context in which you did it.
Take typing, for example. Your fingers move smoothly across the keyboard, creating words and sentences. Do you think about each stroke like you did when you first learned to type? Of course not. Do you even know where the letters are?
“If I asked you to list the keys in the second row, you probably couldn’t,” says Wendy Wood, PhD, senior professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California and author of Good habits, bad habits: the science of positive change that lasts. “It’s not muscle memory. It is a habit.
Your habits determine what you do more than you think. Wood estimates that 43% of our behaviors are made out of habit. “We repeat what we did in the past without thinking about it,” she says. “You can act out of habit without understanding what you are doing.”
If you don’t understand what you are doing, can you change it? Absolutely. Whether you want to start a new habit or quit a bad one, what matters most is how you approach it. And if you think you just need a lot more willpower, you’re wrong.
Why Willpower Doesn’t Work
Most people give willpower more credit than it deserves.
It would be wonderful if you were built to resist the temptations that keep you from creating or giving up a habit. But it doesn’t work like that.
You do things a certain way because you’ve always done them a certain way – and it has worked for you. Habits save us from having to think about everything, all the time. This is also what makes them very difficult to break.
Habit memories are deep-seated, incredibly persistent, and “last long after you’ve forgotten why you started something in the first place,” Wood says. “Habits are not something we can intuit and understand. It’s not like changing our beliefs or having feelings about something. Motivation and willpower diminish, but habits persist. Most of us don’t have the willpower to change a habit long enough.
notice what you are doing
What are your favorite behaviors that you hardly realize?
For example, do you:
- Reach for sugar when you’re stressed?
- Turn to Wordle when you have a moment of inactivity?
- Sink into a certain spot on the couch to watch something at the end of a tough day?
It’s mindfulness in your everyday life. You have to see your habits before you can change them.
Go out of your own way
We all know what we need to do, whether it’s exercising, eating healthier foods, being better at our jobs, quitting smoking or spending too much, or reducing our alcohol consumption. Why don’t we?
There could be several reasons: We already tried it and it didn’t work. We didn’t get any good advice. Our lives or our communities are not configured to support this goal, and the resources we need are inconvenient or inaccessible.
But sometimes it’s because the goal takes us too far out of our comfort zone.
Being uncomfortable is, well, uncomfortable. So we are looking for a way to escape this feeling. It leaves us open to distraction.
Let’s say you made a plan this morning to go for a run this afternoon. But now that it’s time to go, you feel less motivated.
- Check phone notifications
- Send a message
- Scroll social media – or doomscroll the news
- Refresh emails repeatedly
- Strike up a conversation with a neighbor or delivery person
- Fold laundry
- Turn on the TV
How can you stop this cycle and stay focused on the habit you want to create or break?
Make the good deed more practical
Wood recommends making things easy. For example, if you want to eat better, buy a bunch of healthy pre-chopped and prepared foods. Set yourself up for success by making it easy to achieve what you want to do.
Master the discomfort
Before he writes Indistractable: How to control your attention and choose your Life, Nir Eyal has studied how products change our behaviors and helped create health and educational technology apps to get people hooked on healthy behaviors.
Ironically, he found himself increasingly distracted by technology.
One day, while doing father-daughter bonding activities in a book, his phone rang with an email just as they came to the question, “If you could have a super power, what would it be? -he?”
“I couldn’t tell you what my daughter said because at that time I checked my phone and she left the room to play with a toy,” Eyal says. “I thought the problem was technical, but distraction has always been with us. Plato complained about it centuries before the internet. If I could have a superpower, I just want to do the things I know I want to do. … without being distracted.
Eyal finds that people tend to retreat into distraction when they are uncomfortable. He decided to lean on it instead.
“When I was writing a book, I was like, ‘Why can’t I make a habit of writing? If I was a real writer, I wouldn’t have to work so hard. Now I say, “That’s what it’s like to get better at something.”
Use your discomfort as motivation to propel you into action, says Eyal.
Make a plan
Your entire day can be eaten up with distractions if you don’t plan exactly what you’re going to do and exactly when you’re going to do it. Eyal calls this process timeboxing.
Certainly, your projects will not always materialize to the letter. Things happen that legitimately overwrite other things in your schedule. But you can avoid unnecessary diversions if you have a plan.
If something is a distraction that you consciously want to continue, like scrolling through social media, schedule a time for it. Don’t give him free rein.
There are many habit trackers and habit reviews out there. Eyal offers a free timetable creator on its website.
Stick to your schedule
There is an enormous amount of information about habits. Which app, book or system should you buy?
“Start with how you want to spend your time: time to read. Time to exercise. Time to sleep. Should you make time for your family or just give them the time you have left in your a day?” Eyal said. “Once you know the difference between… what you plan ahead and everything else (distraction), habits will come naturally.