The Science of Habit Formation and How It Helps Us Accomplish More of What We Desire
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I love creating new habits, mainly because I've finally learned how to form them without quitting and dropping the ball.
In fact, everything I've accomplished in the last few years has been the result of forming a series of small, positive habits. In my work as an online entrepreneur and coach, I've seen how the right habits have transformed the lives of my peers and clients. People who can commit to their habits are killing it with their bigger goals and dreams. It's really amazing to see.
I've had a client lose over 200 pounds using daily exercise and eating habits. I've watched a marketing podcaster friend make over two million dollars in the last two years because of his commitment to his recording habits. And I've seen another blogger become a bestselling Amazon author, publishing dozens of books over the last few years, and making a boat load of money because he's learned the power of habits.
Here are four ways science shows us how to accomplish more of what matters:
1. Understand your “why”
With any habit you want to undertake, having a bigger-picture reason for forming the habit will give you a booster shot of motivation to follow through. I call this your “reason why.” If you don't have a good reason to perform the habit, you likely won't continue with it.
In an interesting study on motivation, researchers saw a distinct correlation between dreaming big and thinking abstractly about your goals and your ultimate success. A great deal of research has been done on intrinsic motivation (internal drive) and one's ability to commit to a habit or goal. The self-determination theory suggests motivation based on your own values and interests is more effective in supporting achievement.
Your bigger goals might be the part of your “why” — and your daily habits are the stepping stones to those goals.
2. Triggering your habits
If you want to create a sustainable habit and cement that habit in your brain, you need to create a chain of behavior that sets you up for success. Rather than relying on memory or willpower alone to perform a new habit, you need a contextual reminder — a cue to perform the habit.
This is what we call a “habit trigger” — a previously established, automatic behavior that reminds you to perform the habit. Once you perform the trigger, you should immediately perform the new habit, so the two behaviors are directly attached to each other.
Let's say the new habit you want to perform is making your bed in the morning. Maybe the first thing you do in the morning is go to the bathroom, so this established habit could be the trigger to make your bed, which you would do immediately after using the bathroom.
Study after study supports the essential power of triggers when attempting to form a new behavior. According to Dr. Ann Graybiel, habits researcher and professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “It is as though somehow, the brain retains a memory of the habit context, and this pattern can be triggered if the right habit cues come back.”
3. Habits crave rewards
Well, it's not really the habit doing the craving. It's you. But a behavior, good or bad, becomes much stronger when you reward it. Think about smoking for example — not a very good habit, but one that pretty quickly becomes automatic. You smoke the cigarette and enjoy an immediate reward from the feeling you get from the nicotine. Eventually you come to crave that feeling and seek out the reward.
But you can reverse engineer this with good habits. Set yourself up with a reward, hopefully something you already crave, and offer it to yourself immediately after you perform the habit. Pretty soon, you'll want to perform the habit just to get to the reward. Some of my habit students reward themselves with a gold star on their calendar after they perform a habit. Many have reported craving the feeling of putting the star on the calendar and seeing them lined up.
As reported in a 2005 issue of the MIT News, Dr. Graybiel's research underscores the values of rewards when forming habits.
In the Graybiel experiments, rats learned that there was a chocolate reward at one end of a T-maze. When the rats were learning, the neurons were active throughout the maze run, as if everything might be important. As the rats learned which cues (audible tones) indicated which arm of the maze led to the chocolate, the neurons in the basal ganglia learned, too. Cathryn M. Delude, October 19, 2005
Choose a reward that is satisfying for you, and your basal ganglia will reward you by reinforcing your habit efforts.
4. Make it tiny and simple
Stanford professor and researcher Dr. B.J. Fogg has been studying the science of habit creation for years. He believes the smaller the habit, the better the results. For example, he suggests if you want to floss your teeth daily, begin with just one tooth at a time. Then work up from there.
When we're overloaded with options, decisions, and necessary actions, we feel overwhelmed and quickly tire of making any effort at all toward our habit goal. So make it so easy and simple you can't NOT perform your habit.
I recommend starting a habit with just five minutes a day in the beginning. Or start with less time if that feels better. Starting small and building slowly is the key to success. And after you succeed at several small habits, you'll strengthen your habit muscle, allowing you to build your next habit more quickly or be able to tackle more difficult habits.
This is a great time of year to consider the habits you want to accomplish—and there’s every reason to know with certainty that a proven habit plan can help us all accomplish more of what matters most to us.