As the new year rolls in and resolutions and goals for 2022 have been set, it’s really important we understand how to keep these going long after the novelty of the new year motivation wears off. The key: transforming these actions from desired behaviours into automatic and sustainable long-term habits. We take a look at the make up of a habit, how to leverage this system to enhance your chances of success and a number of key tools from the neuroscience and psychology literature you can implement to help you build strong habits and hit your goals in 2022.
2022 gets off to a flying start (hard to believe it’s the second week of January already!), it’s important to recognise the new year brings with it new challenges and goals. Maybe you have a whole list of resolutions set, or maybe you have yet to decide on a single goal: both are perfectly fine. The new year rolling in gives us a great opportunity for a fresh start, to think about our goals, what we want to achieve and how we want 2022 to look for us. Whatever these goals and resolutions might be, how do we make sure we keep them up after the novelty of new year motivation wears off? The key is turning our new planned behaviours into sustainable, long term habits.
Habits, put simply, are learned and repeated behaviours we tend to do without much thought or effort. Wouldn’t it be amazing if those 6am gym sessions you swore you would start in January were without much thought and effort? Don’t panic, they can be. By learning how to leverage tools from the fields of neuroscience and psychology, you can use your brain to help transform your desired behaviours into routine habits.
First things first, let’s look at the steps involved in executing a habitual behaviour. Building on early research from the fields of behaviourism and psychology and incorporating more recent elements from the likes of Charles Duhigg and James Clear, a habitual behaviour is comprised of a Cue, a Craving, a Response and a Reward, with this cycle being known as The Habit Loop. Any habitual behaviour we perform begins with the Cue, or trigger that sets in motion the second element: the Craving, or the motivation to do the behaviour. Following this comes the Response, or carrying out the action which results in the final aspect; the Reward or reinforcement you get upon completion. Understanding these steps is an important element of leveraging this natural system to help you better build sustainable habits out of desired behaviours.
According to Clear, a habit expert and author of bestselling Atomic Habits, there are the four key aspects in turning a behaviour into a habit.
Step 1: Make it Obvious.
The need for the Cue to incite habitual behaviour provides an excellent opportunity in hacking your brain to become better at habits. Find a strong cue for your desired behaviour and make sure it can’t be missed. If you want to work out before work, hang your gym clothes on your bedroom door the night before; you can’t escape your room without having to take them off the handle and be reminded of your behaviour. Even more extreme, wear your workout clothes to sleep so you’re ready to go as soon as you wake up.
Step two: Make it attractive.
If you really, really hate doing something but you push yourself to do it anyway; you might stick with it for a few days. Maybe you will last a month if you’re really motivated; but longer term, it’s not sustainable. So the key here is to make it attractive. If you actually want to do something it requires much less mental effort, right? As Clear points out, a simple tool is to bundle your desired behaviour that you don’t like with something you do like. Sounds simple, but it can be extremely effective. If you want to start reading more often but find it difficult, pair it with something you like by reading a chapter while getting your favourite coffee from the local café. If you want to go for a walk every day, pair it with listening to your favourite podcast. By making it more attractive, you can help boost your brain’s natural craving system.
Step 3: Make it Easy.
Again, a very simple but effective method of building a habit. The less mental or physical effort it takes to perform an action, the higher the probability of success. Of course, some habits are inherently difficult, such as working out, but you can change how easy it is to trigger the habit. For example, if you set up a path of least resistance to starting a workout, you’re far more likely to get the workout done; like leaving your gear out and packing your gym bag the night before, joining a gym that’s much closer to home or even getting some home gym equipment to make it as easy as possible.
Step 4: Make it Rewarding.
Anyone who has taken a psychology class will be familiar with the idea of reinforcement. If you receive a reward for doing something, our brains naturally decide it’s a great idea to do it again. Of course, these rewards don’t need to be medals or prizes, it can be as simple as the satisfactory feeling of seeing your workouts marked on a calendar or the growing list of books you’ve read this year, or the pleasant minty taste of a clean mouth after brushing your teeth. Rewards come in many shapes and sizes, so finding a reinforcing reward for your behaviour is one sure way of improving your chances at turning it into a habitual action.
Now that we’ve looked at the habit formation basics, let’s take a deep dive at some other tools we can use to help us transform our behaviours into sustainable habits.
Procedural Visualisation Exercise
Many of us will be familiar with the idea of visualisation from sport: who else remembers being told to visualise scoring a goal the night before an important game? Interestingly, the neuroscientific literature points to a certain form of visualisation as an extremely effective tool to enhance habit formation. As behaviours are repeated, the procedural memory is changed and updated. Procedural memory is a certain type of memory used for storing and remembering specific sequences of steps. Leveraging this learning system to enhance habit formation is extremely simple: thinking about the sequence of steps required to complete a behaviour and then visualising this ‘recipe’ can not only dramatically increase the likelihood of doing that behaviour, but reduce the amount of friction and resistance and, as a result, the amount of motivation required to perform the action. Best of all, this increase in likelihood of doing the behaviour was found to extend to not only performing this action once, but repeatedly over time after doing the visualisation exercise only once.
Let’s say you want to start running in 2022, using this visualisation technique you would recite the entire sequence of steps from start to finish in your mind like, “I will put my shoes on, I will tie my laces, I will stretch my right calf, then my left calf, then I will walk to my front door…”, you get the idea. By visualising through the recipe for your desired habit, you can help build your actions into sustainable habits.
Goal-based vs Identity-based Approach
For most of us, the purpose of trying to build a habit is to specifically hit a goal. “I want to work out more so I can lose weight”. This immediate goal-based approach is not the most effective way of building a sustainable habit. The better alternative? An identity-based approach. Make the behaviour part of your identity and you are far more likely to succeed in building it into your longer-term routine. The key: take the behaviour you want to do to hit your goal and build it into a larger, identity-based approach. Instead of “I want to work out more to lose weight” it becomes, “I will work out regularly because I am a healthy and fit person”.
Match the ‘What’ with the ‘When’
A trap many people fall into is the concept of strictly and rigidly planning habits. “I will work out at 9:00”, “at 10:00 I will do the dishes”, “at 10:30 I must walk the dog”, and so on, you get the idea. While this strict time-based behaviour system might work for some in the short term, in the longer term it is counter-productive for building habitual behaviours. The perfectionist and rule-oriented aspect of our brains makes this rigid approach a minefield for building routines; anyone who has had a “one bite of a cake and scrapped the diet until Monday” experience will know what I mean. Plus, our brains don’t generate behaviours based on time, but rather on our state. By understanding our natural body states, we can know when to do certain behaviours to increase the likelihood of success. For example, in the period from getting up to 8 hours after waking, our bodies are in a state in which we are primed for action. Pumped with elevated levels of Norepinephrine and Dopamine, our brains and bodies are action and focus oriented. During this window we are equipped with the ammunition to take on the most difficult behaviours or actions needing the most motivation; schedule habits you find most difficult to motivate yourself for in this window.
The second phase of the day, between 9 and 14 hours after waking, our neurotransmitters shift again. This time, the levels of dopamine and norepinephrine start to drop off, replaced with elevated levels of serotonin leading to a much more mellow and relaxed neural state. Our ability to overcome resistance is diminished and our natural alertness and focus has dropped. In this window, the best habits to prioritise are the ones that match this state and require less mental effort or motivation to perform. Think habits we may already have but want to make more consistent, or maybe new behaviours that engage in a similar mellow and relaxed theme, such as walks, reading, meditation or stretching.
So, rather than scheduling behaviours to a specific time, schedule your habits to during the right window to leverage your brain state to massively enhance the likelihood of success.
Much like pairing your habit with the appropriate window or brain state to maximise your chances of success, you can take advantage of habits you already have and piggy-back new habits on to them. If you want to get into the habit of taking your vitamins every morning, pair it with something you do like clockwork every day: brushing your teeth. Put the jar of vitamins beside your toothbrush and every morning as you go to brush your teeth, you take your vitamin. Thinking back to the basics of a habit, here you are turning something you do every day (brushing your teeth) into a strong trigger for a new behaviour, which over time will become something you do automatically.
So whether you have a long list of new year’s resolutions or just some small changes you want to make for 2022, turning actions into long term habits will help you achieve your goals this year. Begin by understanding the four aspects of what makes a habit and leveraging this system by Making it Obvious, Making it Attractive, Making it Easy and Making it Rewarding. Recite the ‘recipe’ of the action in a procedural visualisation exercise – simply doing this once or twice can have long lasting effects. Twist your habit from being based on a goal to being a part of your identity. Match your habits to the appropriate window based on your brain and body states as opposed to rigid time scheduling. Finally, stack your habits to hijack already built routines to boost your chances of success.
Whatever your goals are this 2022, build sustainable habits to help fuel your success for this year!
Published 12 January 2022