How to stick with a new habit

People have trouble making lasting changes.

Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit talks about the importance of developing new habits. Much of the advice offered recommends that we change who we are in the process. But what we need is to understand the science behind lasting change and then create a process that fits who you are. With regard to the science, Sean Young in his excellent book, “Stick with It” identifies 7 psychological forces that enable lasting change – and Young uses the acronym SCIENCE to outline those seven forces.

Step by Step: People have a better chance of success if they focus on small steps. And they need to be really small!! The key message here is to focus on finding the right first step. Put all your energy into achieving that first little step. Take time to reflect on your progress and then repeat. The key question to ask yourself is: Have I been trying to achieve a realistic first step or goal or was it just wishful thinking? Make sure that you have a realistic step by step process in place that works for you. One reason why steps work is because with each step that people complete, it increases their commitment to keep doing something. In his book, Tiny Habits, BJ Fogg recommends that a tiny habit should take no more than 30 seconds to carry out. Say, jumping into your trainers straight after you brush your teeth in the morning.

Community: Having others around us that support the changes we wish to make makes a world of difference – a community that offers  its members something engaging that will keep people coming back – think Weight Watchers, Facebook, Prince’s Trust with its mentors and role models.

Important: If you want people to stick to a routine, then that action or behaviour has to be important personally to them. Researchers have found that the three most important things to people are money, social connections and health.  Interestingly enough, money isn’t as important for happiness as people think and secondly, social relationships are more important than they realise. The evidence for this shows up in our brains. The brain responds to social connections in a similar way to how it responds to the pleasantness of being warm. And social rejection has the exact opposite effect: the brain responds to it as it does to pain. So, linking the new habit to achieving what’s important to you makes a huge difference. You need to figure out how to make something important enough to you that you are willing to change for it. Would you do it for better health, for more money or to become closer to family and friends?

Easy: You need to make things really easy to ensure that you stick to your plan. In a busy world, we have many things competing for our time. The easier it is for a person to do something, the stronger the force for that person to do it. Just think of how much easier we all found studying for the subject that we enjoyed it school versus the one that we found most difficult. So, there are three main things that ways to make things easy. You can control the environment, limit choices or use a road map. Think studying in a quiet library versus in your bedroom; one subject at a time without music in your ears and a revision plan. Young also suggests drawing up a small table such as the following to keep things real:

Another useful tip is borrowed from Kurt Lewin. If you are having trouble sticking with something, remove whatever is stopping you from doing it.

Neuroscience: Act as if! It is not enough to think our way into new habits. We need to change our actions first and practice them over and over again until we get the habit in the muscle and our brains longer have to give it conscious thought. Behavioural change starts by making a small change in behaviour and letting the mind reflect on that change. Moving physically while doing something also helps us stay focused and stick with it rather than over thinking it. Think Nike: Just do it! Lasting behaviour doesn’t start until an action has occurred. It starts with an actual physical change in behaviour, not a change in mind. Change begins not when we think about putting our trainers on but when we actually put them on.

Captivating: Make it engaging. Make it a game rather than a drudge. Reward people every step of the way. For example, my Fitbit rewarded me with an urban badge the other evening in London because I broke through the 20,000 step barrier. The lesson here is that people will keep doing things if they feel rewarded for doing them. The rewards have to be compelling. Different studies have found the following things to be important and rewarding to people: financial rewards up to a point; after a while, they matter less. Social rewards whether belonging to a community, competing successfully against others or having people support you. Good health, freedom and independence. Certain psychological states also matter to some people whether feeling in control of a situation, feeling calm and serene etc. Young recommends five things that make something captivating and they are:

  • Make doing the right thing fun. (Less have to and should and more want to and can)
  • Use the carrot instead of the stick (because doing things out of fear is not sustainable)
  • Don’t assume money is the best reward
  • Forget using education on its own. Research shows that instead of attempting to educate people, you need to appeal to people’s psychology and emotions to get them to keep doing things.
  • Make the activity itself rewarding. Young mentions the Quick Fix – for example, when you learn to play a new instrument, you learn a simple song first that you can easily master and enjoy it because you love the song before you progress to more difficult tunes. Young then explains the Trick Fix when you allow yourself to play the easy song intermittently as a reward for your efforts.

Engrained: The brain is amazingly efficient. It rewards people for sticking to routines. Make it routine so that your brain efficiently senses that is what you want to do. Set up a routine so that it becomes engrained in your actions and behaviours. The secret is to teach the brain by doing the same thing over and over again so that it remembers this behaviour to make it easier to keep doing it. Young also draws attention to magnetic behaviours of elite athletes such as Michael Phelps who since he was twelve years old, does the same thing before he swims. He always stretches a certain way, listens to hip-hop and flaps his arms back and forth around his chest before getting up on the blocks. Even on days when he felt less enthused about swimming, Phelps sticks to this easy to do routine that led to such tremendous success and it helped him follow through and reach further success in the later stages of his career as an Olympian.

So what is the habit that you want to stick with this year? If you really want to make a change, apply the seven forces. Use small steps to plan steps, goals and why you’re doing it. Join a community that will encourage you to stick with the changes. Make it easy by carrying a water bottle with you to make it easier to exercise or hydrate.

And as the Chinese proverb says:

“The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second-best time is right now.”

Olwyn Merritt
Pure Potential

Read more of Sean Young’s book “Stick With It”