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Health and Wellbeing

06 Feb 2019

The psychology of habits

With so many of us going into the new year with new, sometimes never before (or many times before) attempted resolutions, I thought I would share some helpful insights on how to maximise your chances of success with these: using the psychology of how to form and stick to a habit.

What are habits and how do they get formed?

Habits are behaviours which are performed automatically because they have been performed frequently in the past.

This repetition creates a mental association between the situation and action, which means that when the cue is encountered the behaviour is performed automatically.

Automaticity is very helpful, as the action then takes no thought and therefore minimal energy – leaving you with room to make other life decisions!

The famous habit researcher Charles Duhigg summarises the literature on habit formation as a loop that is made of three components that happen in order:

A cue: Different psychological or environmental triggers which result in you automatically engaging in a particular behaviour, e.g. “I’ve arrived at work, I want coffee.”

An action: The action taken as a result of the trigger from the cue, e.g. “So I’m going to walk over to the break room and make a cup of coffee.”

A reward: The pleasurable experience you get which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future, e.g. “I feel much more awake now, what was great!”

The best time to add a new behaviour (to form a new habit) is immediately after an established sequence of behaviours. For example: If you wanted to start meditating before leaving your home in the morning, you should make time for and do it immediately after your morning bathroom routine. If you want to work out after work, do it by following 95 per cent of the steps you already take to get home (e.g. simply take the two extra tram stops further to the gym).

How to make a habit stick

Making something a habit and making it stick, requires:

  • Identify your goal. This will help you decide on the specific actions that will move you in the right direction. Start with small goals and actions;
  • Create environmental triggers. Start by connecting the actions of your habits to activities you already do regularly (e.g. take two extra tram stops to the gym, when you go to the cafe to buy your lunch, walk a few more steps to the park to eat it outside); and
  • Use small, regular, related rewards. Don’t motivate yourself with rewards. Use them to help you enjoy your habits (e.g. the smell of freshly-ground coffee as you watch a picturesque sun rise for your new 5.30am wake up routine).

Rewards are a huge part of how to make something a habit. Firstly, if you are going to develop any new routine, you need to actually like it. You will never last long doing things you hate. So, once you have the cue and taken action, the rewards must:

  • Occur immediately after the action;
  • Be actually related to the action; and
  • Be small.

Your reward needs to be something you can’t get without doing the action, e.g: the reward of getting fresh air and vitamin D from going for a walk in your lunch break (instead of eating at your desk).

And don’t forget, willpower is the most important element of habit formation. Willpower is absolutely “learnable”, so persist and do not give up at the first hurdle. Habit formation will get more automatic and therefore easier with time!

Rajna Bogdanovic

Clinical Psychologist 

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