The science behind of how to make and break habits

the science behind how to make and break habits

Talking about habits seems like the new sexy thing. It’s the in-topic everywhere I go these days. There are books about it, news stories about it, and lots of stuff in social media.

So I was super pumped when a project at my day job became about researching everything we know on how to create habits. I don’t talk much about the details of my regular job, but essentially I help organizations use behavior change to get people (mostly doctors and nurses) to change how they work, so that they’re using evidence to guide their actions and decisions.

So when one of my projects involved understanding everything there is to know about habits, I was really excited. I jumped right in, read all the research, had phone calls with experts, and used it as the foundation of a program that will be rolled out in hundreds of healthcare facilities.

I was telling a friend about this project, and she said, “wow, you should totally write that about that in Balancing Bravely, that’s exactly what everyone wants to know, how do you make and break a habit?”

Here is an overview of how you can use the science of behavior change to make or break a habit.

Step 1. Figure out what you want to change and whether it truly is a habit

One of my latest pet peeve‘s is when I read all of this stuff about habits, a lot of times people are not even talking about habits. They are talking about routines that we have. It seems like it might not matter that much – except the science behind how you change a routine vs a habit is BIG.

The difference between a habit and routine is that a habit is a non-conscious decision that you’re making. Think about is as a subconscious behavior, something that you don’t actually think about, but just do. For example, doing your seatbelt, washing your hair in the shower, where you put your keys. Are you ever in the shower and have to think about whether you have washed your hair? That’s because it’s a habitual behavior that you are doing without thinking.

Having a routine is amazingly helpful, but it’s a more conscious choice about what you are choosing to do – you are much more aware of your routines than your habits. I am 100% on board with creating routines to make your life easier and decrease you mental load, but it’s not quite the same as developing a habit.

When I first started learning about habits, I was trying to figure out how this could apply to my life. I had a super small but annoying thing that kept happening. At the time I had a one and a half-year-old and once it got cold outside, we started wearing jackets. When I pick up and drop them off my son from daycare, I hold him on my right hip. But, I put my keys in my right pocket. In the summertime that meant in my jeans or my shorts, but in the winter that meant they were in the pocket of my jacket. Every time I would try to unlock the door, I would reach for my keys, but I had to twist my arm around while holding my son and his bag and my purse, and listening to my five-year-old tell me about his day. It was super stressful, sometimes things would fall on the ground, in the snow, and I would just sort of lose it about the super small thing.

When I started learning about habits, I thought this was a great opportunity to change a small habit. I have always put my keys in my right pocket, because I’m right handed and that’s where the keys are in the ignition. But it does not have to be that way, I can learn to put my keys in my left pocket. So I followed the steps and figured out how to do that. It seems like a super small change, but it seriously has made a big difference in my life. Then once I figured out how to do it on something that small, you can work your way up and change even bigger habits that have a bigger impact on your life.

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    What habit do you want to change? Brainstorm ideas, make sure it’s really a habit, so an unconscious behavior you’re not really thinking about but doing a regularly, and start small. Something that you don’t have huge emotional attachment to. A good sign that you’ve picked a habit is that you picked something you do regularly and don’t even think about.

    Step 2. Set a goal to change your habit.

    You need to actually want to change this habit to make it happen. You have to make it a goal. You have to be motivated to change. You have to truly want to do this. Habits are hard to change so pick something that you care about enough that you are going to persevere, but not something so important and emotional that you will become hugely emotionally invested (at least for the first habit). 

    It’s really important to know that just because it’s a goal does not mean that you will successfully change. Here’s where lots of the stuff you read online gets it wrong. Making it a goal is not enough. It is not even close to being enough. That’s because habits are not a conscious behavior, so consciously making it a goal we want to change does not actually change what we do.

    Step 3. Create “if… then…” statements as the foundation of your habit change

    Next you need to figure out your key scenarios and what you were going to do. You need to create one or multiple if then statements.

    For example, “if I get out of my car, then I’m going to slightly jokingly throw my keys from my right to my left hand and put them in my left pocket.”

    This is just describing exactly what it is that you want to change and presenting it in an “if… then…” statement. 

    Don’t skip this step – this is HUGE, it’s describing exactly what you want to do. If you can’t describe exactly what you want to do, how will you be successful at doing it?

    Step 4. Figure out what is cuing your behavior

    All habits have a cue. This is something that triggers you to do the subconscious behavior. It could be something really small. For example, with the habit of putting on your seatbelt, the cue may either be the act of sitting in the car or the dinging sound that starts once you turn on the engine. The one I hear most is when smokers have a coffee and then want a cigarette. The coffee is a cue for their habit (smoking). When I am out at a function, the act of having salty snack foods available cues my behavior to grab some chips. I often don’t even think about the first bite, but once I’ve started, I can’t stop.

    Figuring out what is cuing your behavior involves a lot of self-reflection, honestly this step is not easy. So, give yourself some time to observe your own behavior, maybe even ask the people around you what they think is cuing some of your behavior around the thing that you want to change. 

    Step 5. Have a back-up plan when you don’t achieve your habit goals immediately.

    Life is going to throw you curveballs. That’s just the way it goes. So our best laid plans are often put to the side when something derails rails us. That’s why you need a back-up plan. You need to figure out what you were going to do in a whole bunch of different situations that might make you revert to your old behavior, rather than the new habit that you’re trying to create.

    For example, over the holidays, I was trying not to eat snack foods and sweets. At home, it was relatively easy, because I just didn’t buy any. But to truly change this habit, I needed to think through a whole bunch of different situations where they would be available. For example, in the office, there is always snack food, especially around the holidays. So I needed to have a back-up plan for that. My first back-up plan was to only have one serving. Unfortunately, it became very clear very quickly that I could not restrain myself to one serving or I would only have one at work and then want more sweets later. So I replaced that back-up plan with a new one. If there are snacks at work, either you don’t eat any of them, or you put one serving in your lunchbox to eat at home with your family. That meant that I couldn’t go back for seconds, since I would already be at home when I was eating it. And I would have to share it with my family, reducing how much I would eat. I also needed to come up with back up plans for when we went to people’s homes, when I was out at a restaurant, at a school function with my son… You get the idea.

    The best way to complete this step is to think about a whole bunch of different situations you might encounter. Think through them and come up with a really concrete plan. At first it seems like a lot of work. But remember the long-term goal here is so that you change your behavior so you no longer have to think about it. That’s going take time, because currently you have certain behaviors that you don’t think about, but aren’t serving you well. To change that you need to put in a little time and effort. 

    Step 6. Monitor your habit and check in with yourself. 

    This is going to take a while. The research says it will likely take you between 10 days and 250 days to change your habits. It doesn’t normally take 250, especially if you start small. The average is more like 66, so two months. I’m happy to report that I was able to change the keys in my right pocket habit in just a couple of weeks, probably 2 to 3. In fact, all of a sudden I was doing it consistently and not even remembering when that changed. That is what’s amazing. Habits suddenly become these unconscious things that you don’t even think about. So once you successfully change your habit, it just becomes a normal part of your life, it doesn’t take up any space in your brain, it doesn’t take any extra effort, you just get a live like that. That is the power of habit. They are huge help for reducing our mental load.

    But all habits are not as easy to change as the keys in my pocket. So you are going to need to regularly check in. Pick a day and a time, I think a commute is an awesome time to think about this, check in with yourself and see how it’s going, are there cues you didn’t even think of that first? Are unexpected situations causing you to go off course? 

    Create habits and decrease your mental load

    The science behind how to make and break habits

    Changing your habits might seem intimidating or overwhelming at first, but you can absolutely do this. You create habits all the time, you just aren’t even aware of it. With a tiny bit of extra effort, you can create habits that make your life easier, that make your life better and that make you happier. And the beauty is it’s only hard at first. Once it’s a habit you don’t even have to think about it again. You can absolutely do this. It just takes 6 relatively simple steps.

    Step 1. Figure out what you want to change and whether it truly is a habit
    Step 2. Set a goal to change your habit.
    Step 3. Create “if… then…” statements as the foundation of your habit change
    Step 4. Figure out what is cuing your behavior
    Step 5. Have a back-up plan when you don’t achieve your habit goals immediately.
    Step 6. Monitor your habit and check in with yourself. 

    What habit are you going to change? What is your “if..then…” statement?

    Good luck!


    PS If you have any questions about changing your habit, leave a comment below and I can provide some insight on what the research says.