Making your Habits Stick: Establishing Lasting Behavioral Change

Written by Jonathan Cerna, M.S. student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Connections Between Heroin-addicted Soldiers in Vietnam and Habit Change

            Alarming rates of addiction were reported during the Vietnam War in 1971. By 1974, up to 47% of soldiers were suffering from what could be considered a clinical addiction to an illegal substance with an enormous potential for harm. Could this be a coping mechanism resulting from the incredible trauma? Regardless, many came back home, and the resultant drop in addiction left us with jaw-dropping numbers: 9 out of 10 veterans were not abusing any substance at all. Interestingly, one of the most common reports of substance abuse post-war was boredom. Can you imagine? Not intrusive thoughts of a grenade almost exploding near you, not a friend almost being blown up to pieces, not the thought of your troop getting ambushed. 

Stories like these are more informative than one might expect. Knowingly or unknowingly, psychologists started looking closer and closer into this pattern of behavior, and voilà, the study of behavioral change had begun. In this article, I will summarize the relevant changes in brain pattern activation that make habits automatic, and establish key variables that you can manipulate right now to (1) start new behaviors with more ease, (2) increase the likelihood of making your desired habits stick, and (3) increase the likelihood of extinguishing habits that should be removed. 

The Science Behind Automaticity 

    There is an uncanny similitude between certain types of financial interests and habits. Specifically, they share the quality of accrual. In other words, they both compound and result in a bigger pile simply because of inertia gained from pure repetition. Think of an unambiguously good habit that you have already stopped thinking about: brushing your teeth. You have probably never given second thoughts to how many things have been prevented by simply continuing this habit for your current lifetime. Initially, you might have avoided plaque, gum problems, and bad breath, but as one continues to live and routinely take care of one’s teeth, the benefits compound. Besides continually avoiding public embarrassment, one saves money from excessive visits to the doctor, which additionally allows you to spend that money on more interesting and potentially more pressing matters, among many other benefits. Unfortunately, the same goes for bad habits that we form. Think of the stereotypical problem in America, food. We acquire bad habits that gain sufficient traction to repeatedly and consistently lead to negative physiological outcomes.

    The big question for many of us is, how is this even happening? Why are some habits so easy to repeat? Why are others so difficult to remove? Interestingly, there are neurophysiological shifts that occur as we transition from learning a behavior to making it a habit. Anecdotally, you might be able to tell me how complex, for instance, it was to start learning how to play an instrument, drive, or start a new sport, and how much your attention was depleted after an hour of practice. Similarly common, however, is to hear how after repeated practice such skill became less and less cognitively demanding and more natural. Interestingly, this occurs because of a process called “chunking”.

Initially, our brain is using your “I’m actively thinking about this” frontal area the most, the most energy demanding system in your brain. However, when we sleep it off, take time away from the task, and then come back to our task, our brain stores the bits and pieces as a sequence, and you shift from your prefrontal areas to the sensory-motor system, a more conservative system. Habits, however, become more than individual sequences/routines. Various systems incorporate and we start to tie them together. This is why when you get to the bathroom, even if you are sleepy, you may find yourself brushing your teeth before you can even know why. This is also why soldiers serving in Vietnam had such a hard time kicking their bad habits, their entire environment was triggering their supposed need to continue their habit. 

Starting New Habits, Making Them Stick, and Kicking the Old Ones

    Fortunately, there are many creative ways to put this interesting bit of science into practice. Although an exhaustive list of methods is impossible to cover in a single article, let’s talk about three very powerful ones, courtesy of James Clear

  1. Lowering the threshold: The prototypical mistake that is often recycled has to do with New Year’s Resolutions. People swear that they will turn the willpower switch on this year and truly manifest their wishes through their behaviors. Three months later… it’s back to baseline. People don’t allow themselves to build up to their goal, and as a result, they become a failure according to their own standards. But what if you lower the bar enough to jump over it?
    1. People don’t experiment by simply setting that bar low enough that you can easily hit the target. Why? Because meeting one’s goal is intrinsically pleasurable and reinforces future behavior. But if expectations are too high, you will never hit the target. So, next time you are thinking about starting your workout habit – for the love of God, please don’t jump from not working out at all to 5 days at the gym.
  2. Reducing/Increasing friction: What does sleeping in your gym clothes and putting your brownies in a hidden cabinet in the kitchen have in common? They both make your life easier when it comes to accomplishing your goal. In terms of your workout routine, sleeping in your workout clothes on or putting your running shoes by the door reduces the space between you and your goal. Similarly, hiding your brownies in a place that is not easily visible, reduces your chances to snack at unhealthy times by increasing the distance between you and the brownies. In other words, if you want to make a better habit happen more easily, reduce the work it takes to complete it if you are looking to kick a bad habit, increase the amount of work it takes to complete it.

For a more comprehensive talk about these and other techniques, make sure to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, Summer Wellness Series. A talk on July 14th will be focused on the topic of establishing lasting behavioral change while adding focused sections on commonly frustrating areas: exercise, diet, and meditation. 

For more information go, here.

To register for these free webinars and to receive Zoom details, go here.

Peer-edited by Dominika Trzilova

Cover image credit:

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