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Building Effective Habits

Lockdown 2.0 is upon us which means new ways of working, behaving and operating. For me, in the last lockdown, work went online and I went offline. I found it extremely hard to maintain my levels of productivity and my exercise routine dwindled to inconsistent and forced efforts. I had less to do but I’d never done less.

The reason why? Habits.

A habit is a repeated behaviour that occurs without conscious thought and they account for roughly 45% of all our actions. Building habits is the most effective way to implement consistent behaviour change as they essentially put your mind into autopilot and remove the conscious cost-benefit analysis involved in decision making. Less thinking about doing it and more chance of actually doing it.

As behaviours turn to habits, they activate different regions of the brain even though the resulting behaviour stays the same. Greater activation is shown in the basal ganglia which is associated with stimulus driven behaviour, with less activation in the decision-making regions such as the pre-frontal cortex.

In its simplest form a habit can be broken down into 3 parts:

Trigger --> Behaviour --> Reinforcement

So how can we start being productive again?

Manipulate the triggers of the desired behaviour and reinforce it.

If we can initiate certain behaviours with specific triggers then the action becomes automatised, with less attention paid to short-term immediate costs. Let’s take exercise as an example. The long-term benefits of exercise such as improved health and physical appearance can often be outweighed by more prevalent, short-term costs such as pain, effort and having to move off the sofa. As humans we are attuned to cognitive ease and if you have low self-control then you’re in trouble.

There are 5 triggers of a habit:

1. Time – Waking up triggers mindless habits that you don’t even think about – brush your teeth, breakfast, shower. Exercising at a set time everyday creates a powerful trigger that when done enough, can eventually form a habit that becomes as mindless as brushing your teeth.

2. Location – Habits are often a response to the environment around us. We mentally assign habits to a particular location. With gyms shut, this is difficult but it is important to assign a space in your home or a place outdoors where you exercise. Building new habits in familiar locations means fighting pre-existing cues. A new location is like a blank slate for a new habit.

3. Preceding event – Habits trigger other habits. For example, you get home from work, go to the kitchen for a snack and sit down to watch TV. Habit stacking can trigger a cascade of habits from one simple action. For example, if you want to exercise, you could break an old habit by getting a glass of water instead of a snack followed by a workout. Bad habits out, healthy habits in from manipulating the preceding event.

4. Emotional states – Your emotions predict your actions. For example, you eat chocolate when you’re feeling depressed. Becoming aware of your emotional-behavioural responses allows you to intercept before the behaviour is initiated. Feeling down? Switch up eating with exercise. Both release the feel-good hormone serotonin, however, they have slightly different health-related outcomes.

5. Other people – Your friends and the people you surround yourself with often determine your behaviours. Your friend is going to the gym, it is likely you will too. Your friend becomes obese, your risk of becoming obese increases by 57%.

The more triggers you use and combine, the more likely the behaviour becomes. Pick cues that are very specific and that you can act on immediately.

Now all that’s left is to reinforce the behaviour.

Positive reinforcement

Reward yourself when you complete your desired behaviour. Reinforcement doesn’t have to be much, for example watching Netflix after you exercise or even something as little as crossing the word ‘exercise’ off a list. Do this when you are initially trying to form a new habit.

Negative reinforcement

If you don’t buy into the whole positive reinforcement thing, then punish yourself. Do this once your desired habit is an expected behaviour rather a new behaviour. Make your punishment congruent with your goal. For example, you want to exercise 4 times a week. For every time you don’t exercise, add 1/2km onto a Sunday run. Making your punishment congruent with the goal of the habit provides a good means of getting there, even when you don’t produce the initial intended behaviour. This also provides motivation to exercise to avoid a gruelling run on your day off.

It takes an average of 66 days for a behaviour to become a habit. The smaller the habit, the easier it is to stick to. Start small and build it up.

If you’re looking to create positive change, embed new habits and manifest consistent, long-term behaviour change, get in touch to find out how we can help!



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