“Most of us can clearly understand that good habits are better than bad habits and yet there is still a clear gap between intention-to-act and action.”
We live in a time where people are preparing for life on Mars and are actively engaging with robots in the workplace. Yet, when we consider new habits and self-mastery, it doesn’t seem that we have conquered that frontier yet. The self-help book industry alone in 2008 was valued at $11 billion. Even though we have goals or intention-plans to achieve these goals, some studies prove that having an intention to act and actually acting is only correlated by 28% in actual behaviour change.
The intention/acting gap
Most of us can clearly understand that good habits are better than bad habits and yet there is still a clear gap between intention-to-act and action.
There are a number of techniques for new habit formation that focus on setting, context, barriers to action, social influence, emotion and purpose but these should be unpacked on a case by case basis and do not always provide a wide spread approach that many people can make use of. However, breakthroughs in our understanding of how we actively form new habits in the brain have assisted in the development of new behaviour and habits that last.
To understand these we first need to understand the dynamics of a habit.
The science behind habits
A habit is an automatic behavioural pattern in response to a cue. It’s the result of repeating a behaviour in the same context again and again. It happens when we buckle up our seat belts when we get in a car, jump onto Facebook when we are feeling bored, or remember to take a notebook with to a meeting.
Repetition strengthens the connection in the brain between a cue and the associated behaviour. With enough repetition our habits move from being initially conscious behaviour to unconscious habit. A recent study proved that it takes 66 days on average to form a new habit and that some people can take up to 250 days to form the same habit.
The secret is that repetition is key. How we move from new behaviour to habit can be likened to learning to drive a car. When driving for the first time we felt very conscious about what we were doing and constantly remembered to put the gear stick into second gear when we moved through a corner. Yet, over time and with repetition, we can’t even consciously remember shifting gears after we have driven somewhere on the same day.
The brain loves to hardwire thinking, but it has limited capacity to do so. We can only manage to change one habit at a time. This is why we can talk on the phone and drive once we have mastered driving a car (assuming that you are using a hands-free device of course), but not when we were first learning to do so.
Small steps, big rewards
Often, we expect big changes in our behaviour and set challenging goals: Lose 38kgs, wake up at 5am, make R10 million in the first year of business. The reality is that change and the formation of new habits is small and requires incremental repeated steps to take hold. When we have a lofty goal we often get disheartened when we don’t see significant progress towards that goal. This limits our desire to repeat the behaviour that is required by the brain to create new habits.
So, what’s the solution? We need to chunk our goals into smaller habits that can be achieved easily and habitually. When we achieve goals the brain releases dopamine, the feel-good hormone, and adrenaline, the energy hormone.
This creates an upward spiral where we feel motivated and have the energy to achieve more. So, instead of working towards a R10 million target, break down that goal into a piece of lead-generating activity a day. This achievement of smaller incremental goals will create a synergy of dopamine and adrenaline in the brain associated with the behaviour that will enable us to ride this wave in a positive upward spiral of repetition over time.
“If-Then” plans and how to use them
Behavioural scientists suggest that we need to create a routine that weaves our new desired behaviour into our daily lives to increase repetition so that it may one day become a default response and thus a habit.
This requires routine, consistency, a reminder to do so and most importantly, what some scientists call, an If-Then plan. This is a cue in our mind to behave in a certain way when a situation presents itself. This is aided by stacking new desired behaviours into existing habits.
For example, we could create an If-Then plan to go to gym after working by making sure that once we get home after work and get changed out of our work clothes (If), we get dressed into our gym clothes (Then).
This creates an achievable and easily repeatable behaviour (getting ready for gym) that enables us to create a positive upward spiral (releasing dopamine and adrenaline) to fulfil a larger, more important, goal (improved overall health).
Once we can create this loose connection in the brain between desired activity (Then) and situational cue (If), this associated behaviour becomes easily accessible in the brain and therefore easier to recall.
Once we have recalled it enough it is hardwired and becomes a new habit, moving from the conscious to unconscious.
Pulling it al together
What goals are you currently working on that you can break down into smaller goals to create a positive upward spiral? How can you create If-Then plans or mental cues to make sure that your desired behaviour is easy to recall and act upon based on cues in your day-to-day environment? Start small, but start — that’s how you form the habits that will ultimately lead you down a path of success.