Many make New Year’s resolutions to launch behaviors that lead to better health, improved productivity, or enhanced overall well-being. Conventional wisdom suggests that the key to success in keeping those resolutions is willpower.
If you’re feeling a bit low on willpower these days, I’ve got good news for you!
Wendy Wood, USC Professor of Psychology and Business, believes in something else. Dr. Wood is the leading scientist on the nature of habit, and in her decades of research has determined that willpower has little to do with successful habit change. In her book, Good Habits, Bad Habits – The science of making positive changes that stick, she offers the first scientifically grounded analysis of habit formation and offers a toolkit for how to get rid of unwanted habits. This is another book I received from The Next Big Idea Club
My first key insight was the clarification about what habits are.
Habits are actions that are performed automatically, without conscious direction.
Habit refers to HOW you perform an action, not what the action is.
The key feature of habits is that they work outside your conscious awareness, so it’s easy to overlook their presence in your life. That means we may not be fully aware of what is required to form good habits. Here are my favorite tips and insights I learned from Dr. Wendy Wood:
1. Context is King – Context is all the external forces in our environment. Like the tobacco laws that hinder smoking. The context around us is more powerful than our willpower. For example, PROXIMITY. Her research proved that people who traveled a median distance of 3.7 miles to the gym went to the gym five times more than those who traveled 5.1 miles to their gym. For me, not keeping junk food or in my pantry helps me in my efforts to eat a healthy diet.
This also applies to the people that are in our lives. Choosing not to be around those friends that are a bad influence or toxic, matters. Be intentional about who you spend time with. We engage with what is near us and tend to overlook what is far away.
2. Repetition and timing – There is a popular idea that it takes 21 days to form a habit. Research suggests its more complicated than that. It’s more like 65 days for people to take action without thinking about it. Taking that action at the same time of day is also helpful, (e.g., eating a salad or piece of fruit at lunch). The good news is that people could miss a day or two without derailing what they started. Instead, they use it as an opportunity to make the context tighter.
3. Habit Stacking – Stacking involves tying a new behavior to an existing habit. One example of replacing the batteries in your smoke detector when the time changes from Standard to Daylight Savings time. Flossing your teeth after brushing or placing nighttime medications on your bedside table. It’s a bit of both stacking and proximity (hello, context)!
Overthinking tends to create anxiety. Minding your habits is a path toward inner calm and a way to reduce the uncertainty we may face on a daily basis. Research has shown that people who operate with daily routines found life more meaningful. They have more brain-space for the important stuff and tend to keep priorities top of mind.
It’s not too late to convert those resolutions into habits! Try applying these concepts and see what happens. It’s a great way to start a new decade!
Martha Duesterhoft is a Partner with PeopleResults. Follow her on Twitter @mduesterhoft or connect via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.