Habits are like being on autopilot, and they’re the key to reaching your goals.
Habits are not resolutions: Those are the commitments to change you make on January 1, your birthday, or when you’ve had some sort of wake-up call. Habits aren’t behaviors, either.
Instead, habits are impulses that drive you to do certain things with little to no conscious thought. They’re a learning mechanism that connects what you’ve done in the past with the context in which you’ve done it.
Take typing, for example. Your fingers move across the keyboard smoothly, creating words and sentences. Do you think about every stroke like you did when you first learned to type? Of course not. Do you even know where the letters are?
“If I ask you to list the keys on the second row, you probably can’t,” says Wendy Wood, PhD, provost professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California and author of Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick. “It’s not muscle memory. It’s habit.”
Your habits drive what you do more than you may realize. Wood estimates that 43% of our behavior is done out of habit. “We’re repeating what we’ve done in the past and not thinking about it,” she says. “You can act on habit without understanding what you’re doing.”
If you don’t understand what you’re doing, can you change it? Absolutely. Whether you want to start a new habit or drop a bad one, what matters most is the way you approach it. And if you think you just need a lot more willpower, you’re mistaken.
Why Willpower Doesn’t Work
Most people give willpower more credit than it deserves.
It would be wonderful if you were built to resist the temptations that keep you from creating or dropping a habit. But it just doesn’t work that way.
You do things a certain way because you’ve always done them a certain way – and it’s worked for you. Habits keep us from having to think through everything, all the time. That’s also what makes them very hard to break.
Habit memories are deeply ingrained, incredibly persistent, and “last long after you’ve forgotten why you started something in the first place,” Wood says. “Habits aren’t something we can intuit and understand. It’s not like changing our beliefs or having feelings about something. Motivation and willpower wanes, but habits persist. Most of us don’t have the willpower long enough to change a habit.”
Notice What You’re Up To
What are your go-to behaviors that you almost don’t realize you’re doing?
For instance, do you:
- Reach for sugar when you’re under stress?
- Turn to Wordle when you’ve got an idle moment?
- Burrow into a certain spot on the couch to binge-watch something at the end of a rough day?
This is mindfulness in your everyday life. You have to see your habits before you can change them.
Get Out of Your Own Way
We all know what we need to do, whether it’s to exercise, eat healthier food, be better at our jobs, stop smoking or overspending, or cut back on alcohol. Why don’t we do it?
There can be multiple reasons: We’ve tried before and it didn’t work. We didn’t have good advice. Our lives or communities aren’t set up to support that goal, and the resources we need are inconvenient or inaccessible.
But sometimes, it’s because the goal takes us too far outside of our comfort zone.
Being uncomfortable is, well, uncomfortable. So we look for a way to escape that sensation. That leaves us open to distraction.
Let’s say you made a plan this morning to go running this afternoon. But now that it’s time to head out, you feel less motivated.
- Check phone notifications
- Send a text
- Scroll social media – or doomscroll the news
- Refresh email repeatedly
- Start a conversation with a neighbor or delivery person
- Fold some laundry
- Turn on the TV
How can you stop this cycle and stay focused on the habit you want to create or break?
Make the Right Action More Convenient
Wood recommends making things easy. For example, if you want to eat better, buy a bunch of pre-chopped, prepared healthy foods. Set yourself up for success by making it easier to do the thing you want to do.
Harness the Discomfort
Before he wrote Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, Nir Eyal studied how products change our behaviors and helped build health and ed-tech apps to get people hooked on healthy behaviors.
Ironically, he found himself getting increasingly distracted by technology.
One day, while doing some daddy-daughter bonding activities in a book, his phone buzzed with an email just as they came to the question, “If you could have any superpower, what would it be?”
“I couldn’t tell you what my daughter said because in that moment, I checked my phone and she left the room to play with a toy,” Eyal says. “I thought the problem was tech, but distraction has always been with us. Plato complained about it centuries before the internet. If I could have any superpower, I just want to do the things I know I want to do … without getting distracted.”
Eyal finds that people tend to retreat into distraction when they’re uncomfortable. He decided to lean into it instead.
“When I was writing a book, I used to say, ‘Why can’t I get into a writing habit? If I was a real writer, I wouldn’t have to work this hard.’ Now I say, ‘This is what it feels like to get better at something.’”
Use your discomfort as a motivation to propel yourself into action, Eyal says.
Make a Plan
Your entire day can be devoured by distractions if you don’t plan out exactly what you’re going to do and exactly when you’re going to do it. Eyal calls this process timeboxing.
Granted, your plans aren’t always going to happen to the letter. Stuff comes up that legitimately bumps other things off your schedule. But you can avoid unnecessary diversions if you have a plan.
If something is a distraction that you consciously want to continue, like scrolling social media, schedule a time for it. Don’t give it free reign.
There are many habit trackers and journals devoted to habits. Eyal offers a free schedule maker on his website.
Stick to Your Schedule
There’s an overwhelming amount of information out there about habits. Which app, book, or system should you buy?
“Start with how you want to spend your time: Time for reading. Time for exercise. Time for sleep. Should you build in family time or just give them the scraps of time you have leftover in a day?” Eyal says. “Once you know the difference between … what you plan in advance, and everything else (distraction), the habits will come naturally.”