Let’s face it. How many times did you put off reading the latest “How to be more productive” book after the first two chapters? Or tried to floss your teeth everyday like the dentist said, only to drop it on the fourth day?
Self-improvement tends to be exceedingly hard in its popular forms.
Our brains inherently detest messages like, “wake up early,” “watch no more than half an hour of TV,” and “only two bites of chocolate cake.” But in the name of self-improvement, you keep passing these conflicting interests to your decision-making brain. Is it any surprise that your brain repeatedly resolves, “Meh, self-improvement isn’t just worth it” and leaves you berserk?
We hear the quote too often,
“We become what we repeatedly do.” — Sean Covey
..and desperately want to learn new habits that we know are good for us! Simply motivating yourself, though, doesn’t always help you form a new habit. But there is no need to panic, because I am just about to show you how to do it without fail every time.
Let me begin with some good news for you: habit forming is easy. Don’t believe me? Haven’t you noticed how little time it took John Doe to turn into an alcoholic, after just a beer? Well, addictions are habits too, and the secret to forming a habit that lasts is technique. People use it all the time, unknowingly, to form bad habits. Why not uncover this technique to help ourselves form good habits, after all?
A habit is a behavior, or a series of behaviors. For the sake of clarity, let us define behaviors as actions we take:
1.in response to something, and/or
2.in anticipation of something.
Despite the simple definition, habits can be very complex at the core. A seemingly simple habit can actually be a host of behaviors intermixed with each other. It is therefore no surprise that overcoming certain habits is something very hard to do.
Let us examine the previous example of drinking. Many problem drinkers once enjoyed their first drink by associating it as an escape from something unpleasant. They may thus start to use it regularly as self-medication; to forget the pain of how much they hate their job, or spouse, or life, or anything else. Quickly they learn additional behaviors, such as getting aroused by the smell or sight of alcohol, or associating all social and emotional cues with getting drunk. This forms a habit complex that makes it very hard for an alcoholic to break away from.
While the dark side of habit formation is distressing, it is indeed interesting to know that there is hope for those of us who want to form good habits that last, and do so very easily and quickly!
The secret recipe: conditioning yourself
What is behind our quick inclination to certain behaviors is explained well by psychology using the concept of conditioning. In simple words, conditioning is the unconscious association of specific behaviors in response or anticipation to something, until the behavior becomes automatic.
The more rewarding (resulting in a favorable outcome) the behaviors are, the easier they are to be repeated automatically and the more likely they are to persist, i.e., the stronger the habit is.
As children, we are all taught by our parents to clean ourselves. Thanks to conditioning, it has fortunately become a habit. We form new habits all the time, but the ones that stay are always the ones that are properly ‘reinforced’. Reinforcement is again a term borrowed from psychology; meaning strengthening a behavior by providing rewards (or by withdrawal of punishment).
Psychology and Self-reinforcement
Sometimes the reinforcement is external, like rewards or punishments enforced by someone or an environmental outcome. At other times, the reinforcement can be intrinsic, such as satisfaction or a feeling of accomplishment (or a release from unpleasant thoughts). Either way, it is important to understand that reinforcements are the key to successfully forming new habits.
While there is still some debate in modern psychology about the effectiveness of self-reinforcement, such as giving yourself a chocolate drink after a difficult workout or taking a fun break after each hour of homework; make no mistake about the importance of conditioning yourself when initially trying to form a habit.
You can condition your habits by both positive and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is to provide a reward after the desired behavior while negative reinforcement involves the taking away of an unpleasant stimulus. As an example, to learn a habit of studying every evening for an hour, you can use both of these approaches equally well:
1. After studying, you may play your favorite video game for 15 minutes (positive reinforcement — provides pleasurable reward)
2. Postpone the snack until you finish studying (negative reinforcement — takes away hunger, an unpleasant state of mind)
A combination of both may work even better!
In either case, remember to provide reinforcement immediately after the desired behavior is performed. When starting to learn a new habit, the reinforcement must be provided over a period of time until the habit becomes unconsciously tolerable. You will soon see that the habit goes on to be performed on auto-pilot, even after withdrawing the reinforcement.
Tips to get you going
Sometimes you want to have certain good habits before you can improve upon many aspects of your life. Such habits can be making a day plan or to-do list everyday, journaling, exercising, meditating, etc. Make them your priority and finish them first in the morning, reinforcing them generously with your favorite rewards (or by taking away unpleasant stimuli such as hunger).
If you’re trying to learn an important habit such as waking up early, or meditating a few minutes everyday, the best reinforcement is to reward yourself immediately with an extremely pleasurable stimuli that you just can’t go wrong about (reading the newspaper or watching your favorite TV show). Implemented properly, the reinforcement very soon becomes redundant because the activities are pleasurable by themselves.
If you’re overweight or want to learn to eat only at specific times of the day, you can try the “putting on cue” method. For conditioning yourself, you wait until you’re hungry at each time of the day, and eat only in a specific room in your house or workplace (or even a particular restaurant). After a while, your brain will associate this cue with your breakfast or lunch and you will stop feeling hungry during other times or at different places.
You can overcome bad habits like anger or addiction using similar principles.
To overcome laziness or to routinely perform particularly boring tasks throughout the day, remember to use the Premack’s principle.
Use external reinforcement wherever possible. Tell a friend you’ll pay them 50 bucks if you can’t submit the thesis on time. Or challenge your roommates to catch you procrastinating red-handed. It generates additional motivation to succeed in your tasks, while also conditioning you in the long-term.
Sometimes, gradually reducing the reinforcements in magnitude (yes, they can become habits too) works better than going cold turkey on them. Either way, it’s always better not to use addictive behaviors (such as video games) as reinforcements.
Is it really that simple?
While conditioning explains habit formation fairly well in humans and helps us learn new habits quickly in controlled environments, it is often not the only factor affecting our behavior in the real world.
Thinking patterns, beliefs, and environmental stimuli can sometimes interfere with habit formation, especially when no serious attention is paid to them. In the worst case, our ‘other’ habits affect the learning of new habits too! Habits can be confusing at times!
The secret to learning habits successfully comes from understanding all these factors and devising methods to counter the opposition to proper conditioning. This comes with practice, and often also, patience — which in itself is a good habit to learn!
Let me know if this helped you form a new habit!