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The Science Behind Habit Formation

How often have you read these phrases before?:

  1. All it takes is 10 mindful minutes every day”
  2. Just do 30 minutes of moderate activity five days a week”
  3. Simple tips to improve your sleep”.

Then the guilt ensues. You chose to message your friend rather than be mindful, you traded the exercise in for some online shopping, and you’re still on your phone until the moment you switch off your bedside light. The rhetoric around healthy habits is not always very forgiving to the complexity of the human mind. Habits can be life changing, but this is also the very reason why they can be difficult to implement ranging anywhere between 18 and 254 days. Why is it so tricky and what’s the solution? An awareness of the processes underlying habit formation can make us more compassionate to ourselves, and realize the power of baby steps.

Demystifying the science

A habit is defined as a learned association between a context (e.g. the bathroom) and a behaviour (e.g. brushing your teeth). To develop a habit, such as flossing your teeth, the behaviour must be repeated in a stable context until it is performed automatically upon encountering that context. Researchers found that we often assume that a habit is driven by a goal, like healthy teeth, but habits are actually more affected by the performance context because this triggers the behaviour in memory. However, context alone is not enough. We also need to have the ability to perform the habit, which is influenced by factors such as time, money, physical effort, or brain cycles. In addition, we need motivation, which can be affected by sensations (pleasure/pain), anticipation (hope/fear) and belonging (social acceptance/rejection). This already seems quite intense, doesn’t it?

Individual differences

One issue with advice on habit formation is that they rely on the assumption that we’re all the same. What facilitates one person to change their behaviour might hinder another person. For example, you’re trying to get in shape and you plan to go to the gym at lunch. Your colleague says they’ll join you. For some, this discourages habit formation because you’ll feel pressured to keep up with them or slow down so they don’t feel discouraged. For others, it’s a welcome surprise because you think they’ll be able to push you harder, and so you can achieve better results than if you exercised alone. This is one example of how we’re different. Another exploratory study found that extroversion, openness, conscientiousness, and agreeableness all affected participants’ perceptions of the persuasiveness of a physical activity app. Given the multi-faceted nature of our personalities, what works for one may not work for another. So, don’t be disheartened if you know people who respond well to their personal trainer’s dietary advice while you’re eating your third chocolate bar.

Technology’s false hope

Another problem is that we often turn to apps or wearable devices to change our behaviour because they promise success. Indeed, in 2018 Nokia claimed that “tracking helps you move more, feel better, and sleep better”. But it’s very difficult to prove that an app has induced long-lasting behaviour change. Commenting on the need for thorough research, Klasnja et al. (2011) argue: “If one truly wants to find out whether a behaviour has solidified, the need for such longitudinal studies is unavoidable.” The studies that have been conducted highlight several issues: (1) Many are not grounded in theory, e.g. reminders keep us goal-focused, but this means we become dependent on the app to perform the behaviour rather than developing the essential ingredient: automaticity; (2) App designers are too ambitious by targeting the general population to do a general activity. Specificity is key; (3) Apps burden the user with numbers without offering actionable insights; (4) Software design, e.g. what is a step? In one study, a user became confused that their device counted steps when rocking their baby but not when pushing the stroller. It’s no wonder many of us get frustrated and abandon the technology altogether. Who wants to be told they had 5 hours sleep with no advice on how to improve the situation?

Tiny habits

So, is it possible to change our behaviour? Absolutely. Let’s say we want to get in shape. According to behaviour expert BJ Fogg, we need a behaviour that demands the perfect combination of ability and motivation. Behaviour change shouldn’t rely on high motivation as it fluctuates so often, and it’s hard to sustain. Equally, it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to do a behaviour which is too difficult. The sweet spot lays in a behaviour that is both easy to do and requires low motivation. In other words, big changes happen through tiny habits. In this case, that means starting with one sit up a day (or an exercise of your choice). Now we just need a trigger, which Fogg claims is best positioned after an existing behaviour, for example when you get up in the morning. And most importantly is the celebration after you’ve done the behaviour. This can be anything from saying to yourself “great work”, screaming “WOO!” or doing a dance (a personal favourite). These may sound ridiculous, but rewards are important in habit formation, especially early on. So, taken together, the formula is:

After X (existing behaviour: get out of bed in the morning), I will do Y (new easy behaviour: 1 sit up) + Z (celebration: ‘WOO!’)

The mechanics of behaviour change, the complexity of our personalities, the difficulty of testing theories, and the promises of technology can make habit formation seem like an insurmountable task. As a result, we may feel despondent, disappointed and stuck when really we should be more kind and understanding to ourselves. This is why starting small is a very promising avenue. After all, if it were that easy to change our own behaviour, the world would be a very different place.