Making changes in our own lives or getting others to change their behaviour is harder than we think. It's tough because people are naturally creatures of habit – can even be slaves to them – and because habits are usually deeply embedded. Trying to unravel existing habits and getting people to do something new is one thing and can be a major mental battleground; trying to initiate a new habit from a standing start, however, is something else entirely.
This article discusses creating new habits in depth and is Part Two of a three-part series. In Part One, we examined the theory behind habit formation and the things we can do to put a stop to stickily ingrained bad habits. In Part Two, we focus on ways of creating new habits in our lives; Part Three will look at how we can measure habit strength through different sets of indicators and why such measurement is useful.
There are numerous examples of initiatives and campaigns which have succeeded in altering attitudes and even intentions to change behavior, but which have often faltered at the final hurdle – that of behavioral change itself – especially when habits are deeply embedded. For example, one information campaign designed to reduce substance abuse actually increased use.1
Over the last decade or so, there have been breakthroughs in our understanding of habits (analyzing our routines in micro detail for instance) in order to determine how habits are formed. Research has also looked at how to shape and change behavior whether by the powerful influence of contextual changes or by using an existing habit to trigger another or by creating a psychological or tangible reward for a new behavior.
In this article, we look at some of this research, in particular that which deals with forming new habits. The magic number three seems to be key if we want to engender a new behavior, so here are three steps to habit formation:
Step 1) Choose a new habit or behavioural goal and focus on it
Pick a particular behavior you want to add to your life, a new habit you want to create. Or, from the perspective of a marketer or policymaker, decide on the particular behavior change you want to instill in others.
With a particular new habit in mind, the next two steps are based around a very simple model to promote repetition of the behavior. When thinking about behavioral change, it is critical to consider the whole picture and to be particularly conscious of what's been termed the habit loop.2 It's easy to do something differently just one time, but hard to incorporate that behavior change long-term. This model forces us to think about the neurological loop at the base of a habit.
It's easy to do something differently just one time, but hard to incorporate that behavior change long- term
Habits are built through context-dependent repetition, so identifying the triggers or cues as well as the rewards will help to build that repetition and create a habit loop by promoting automaticity, a key feature of any habit. Some even believe automaticity is the essential feature. Both the repetition and reward steps are equally important, so it's essential to consider both.
As behavioral experts, Bas Verplanken and Henrik Aarts state, habits are “learned sequences of acts that have become automatic responses to specific cues, and are functional in obtaining certain goals or end states.“3
Source: Based on Charles Duhigg’s, ‘Habit Loop,’, ‘The Power of Habit,’, Random House, 2012
Step 2) Identify the behavioral cue or trigger which will drive your new habit
Habits are triggered by the context we are in and by the circumstances which cue them. So when you're looking to engender a new habit, it can help to identify the possible existing contextual triggers or potential cues to facilitate this. A useful rule of thumb is to consider what prompts us to do certain things. For example, “if Trigger X happens, then we do Behaviour Y.” Triggers do not always need to be blatantly obvious; they can be subtle, too. The key thing is that you are aware of them, even if only subconsciously.4
Triggers fall into five primary context types:5
- Location – where we are
- Time – what time of day or year it is
- Other People – who we're with, and what other people around us are doing
- Emotional State – how we feel; what mood we're in
- Immediately Preceding Action – what we've just been doing
Connecting new behaviors to existing behaviors – a concept known as “piggybacking” – is a strategic approach to new habit formation. For example, Febreze, the air freshener from P&G, was successfully marketed to consumers as the reward at the end of a cleaning routine, the finishing touch if you like. It became a habit which was initially piggybacked onto the end of a cleaning routine and gradually became the inextricable reward part of the routine itself. Similarly, Suntory, the Japanese whisky group, started to serve the humble Whisky-Soda in pint glasses in order to piggyback the drinking experience onto well-established beer drinking behaviors. This drink format, dubbed the “highball,“ has helped whisky sales rise in Japan by 10 percent a year over the past three years. So it's wise to look at existing routines and work out if a new habit can be added to an existing one.
it's wise to look at existing routines and work out if a new habit can be added to an existing one
As B.J. Fogg of Stanford University's Persuasive Technology Lab is fond of pointing out, it also helps if you make the building of new habits easy. And piggybacking one habit onto another is a good way of doing this. So if you're trying to introduce a new habit, it makes sense to lean on an existing behavior and try not to overreach. One of Fogg's own practices, based on his “Tiny Steps” approach, is described by him here:
“One practical habit is, as soon as the phone rings, I put on my headset and I start walking. This has grown to lifting kettlebells or doing little one-leg squats while I'm on the phone. The desired behavior is to be active and working out in these small ways. I'm on the phone two to three hours a day, and now it's a habit that I probably can't stop. When I take calls, I'm up and walking around. I've created all these tiny habits in my life, from really practical to kind of crazy.“
He describes the genesis of a piggybacking/tiny steps habit which began with a simple intention to do two push-ups each time he used the bathroom.6 The push-up habit not only became routine, it evolved into a full blown workout with Fogg routinely hitting 100 push-ups. As a result of one tiny habit being hitched to a very routine behavior, a consolidated, committed practice was born. And the reward? Fogg lost weight and gained stamina.
A possible mantra for instilling the piggybacking habit, then, could be “When I . . . [insert routine behavior],I will then . . . [insert new habit to engender].”
In almost all habitual behaviors, we can identify a reward that gives the habit its addictive appeal
Step 3) The Power of Tangible, Subconscious and Biological Rewards in Building a Habit Loop
In almost all habitual behaviors, we can identify a reward that gives the habit its addictive appeal. Since we know that the reward is the bit that fixes the habit in place, it makes sense to set up the reward structure if we're aiming to engender a new habit. Creating a reward will encourage us to carry out a particular behavior, and a reward is especially important if the new habit we want to engender might seem difficult or time consuming. A reward might even exist already; we simply need to make it more overt and appreciated. Secondly and crucially, it can help to reinforce the routine and make sure we keep on repeating the new habit, eventually making it automatic. The type of reward can be tangible (e.g., a treat after a workout) or more subconscious, perhaps just feeling good about yourself:
- Tangible rewards: A simple example might be cycling into work and picking up an espresso from your favorite coffee shop once you've parked your bike. Or the reward can retrospectively drive the behavior. For example, going to the gym might mean you feel justified in eating dessert with dinner. A study on travel habits found that free bus passes in Stuttgart helped to create a new habit of using public transport among people who had recently moved to the city. Use of public transport rose dramatically from 18 percent to 47 percent.7 In this case, the reward might actually have been the main driver behind the habit. A tangible reward could also be getting closer to or actually achieving a goal, so keeping a written record of smoke-free days, for example, or laps in the pool, or distance run could be strong motivators.
- Subconscious rewards: A reward can also be less tangible. For example, a “feel good” sense of belonging among colleagues at the pub or a self-esteem boost from a shopping spree. It could also be a sense of progress at the end of the day on a project at work. TBA recently carried out some consumer research on kitchen surface cleaners amongst housewives in Asia and discovered that the hidden reward for using a new, better product was actually a social reward and sense of empowerment; the new surface cleaner took the place of a quick once over and created a clean smelling environment. As a result, friends and family found the newly cleaned and aromatic kitchen a more pleasant place to be and were thus more likely to congregate there after dinner. The reward for the housewives was less social isolation and more family interaction.
- Pleasure-based, physiological or biological rewards: Some enjoyable behaviors prompt your brain to release the feel good chemical dopamine. This is often used to explain “runner's high,” and is known to contribute to drug and gambling addictions. Both smoking and food (comfort food in particular) can also provide a psychological reward.
These different types of rewards may not be mutually exclusive, either. They can be layered with a tangible, short-term reward combining with a longer term goal. For example, brushing your teeth rewards you with an immediate clean, minty fresh sensation, but also rewards you with healthy, whiter teeth throughout your lifetime... not to mention fewer cavities.
Behavioral strategies which help to promote repetition
Although creating triggers and building in a reward are certainly the backbone of bedding down a new habit, there are a number of additional strategies to consider which can help to build repetition and strengthen the automaticity of a habit:
1. Commit to a plan: New habits don't just happen.
We need to consciously work out how to build them into our lives. One technique is to make an exact plan. A study which looked at people trying to create the new habit of daily flossing found that those participants who first outlined when and where they would floss each day flossed more frequently over the four-week intervention period.8 By thinking things through, you are working out your triggers – in this case, being in the bathroom. By stating what you will do – flossing every day – you are committing yourself more firmly to actually doing it. Behavioral scientists call this commitment bias. We are more likely to carry out a task if we commit to it, especially publically. Where the habits you want to engender are likely to take place at home, it would help if you were to announce to family members exactly what you plan to do. Other forms of commitment bias might involve teaming up with another person because it makes you responsible to them; for instance, a jogging partner or a fellow smoker you make a pact to quit with.
Making a plan might also involve the breaking down and removal of any barriers to forming new habits. For example, a barrier to commuting to work by bike might be poor knowledge of cycle routes.9 So investing a few hours to read a cycle map, or even practice with routes on a quiet Sunday morning when you are not in a rush, could help to break down those barriers.
We are more likely to carry out a task if we commit to it, especially publicly
2. Make a small change or addition to a stable context: Many of our routines are fixed partly because we automatically seek them out.
Our lives are largely constructed of deeply-embedded routines. Researchers have demonstrated that as much as 45 percent of our daily actions are habitual, so you need to be clever to make any lasting changes. One useful approach is to build new habits within your existing, stable context. Behavioral patterns will more easily establish themselves because the same triggers are there every time, every day, every week.
A project to improve water sanitation in Kenya required villagers to chlorinate their water. Poor water sanitation is a major cause of illness in developing countries and using chlorine tablets is a simple and effective way of purifying water. However, despite the availability of free tablets, people were not using them largely because they were not in the habit of using them. The research team knew that the villagers collected water every day so they designed and installed chlorine dispensers at the point of water collection. They also made the default amount of chlorine dispensed match the standard size of container the villagers carried, making it easy and simple to use.10
When people have lives where contexts are fluid and less predictable, it can be harder to form new habits since the contextual trigger may not always be present. If working patterns are very changeable in terms of time or location, people face bigger barriers for developing desired habits. In the same way, holidays, business travel and even weekends can often disrupt the embedding of new habits because they change context so completely. A study which followed adults enrolled in a weight loss program found that, although people were able to begin developing healthy habits in the workplace during the week, these new patterns of behavior were often disrupted over weekends and during holidays. One participant said, “Weekend evenings have been a bit of an issue over the eight-week program because you go out or get invited out for a meal with friends and you all have a drink and la la la!“ Another participant said, “My last two weeks have been a bit of a disappointment …I was on holiday and it was takeaways every night…But since I've been back from holiday, I've gone straight back to it.“11 For those with varied, frenetic and unpredictable weekdays at work, weekends may be a better opportunity to build habits since they may be more in control and in a stable context at home.
3. Take advantage of major or permanent disruptions: A major, permanent life change provides one of the easiest, most natural opportunities to create new habits since it disrupts existing routines so completely.
It might be a permanent change in your environment such as moving to a new location or beginning a new career. On average, Americans move every five years,12 so every five years, a perfect opportunity arises to change your habits.
David Halpern of the Behavioural Insight Team in the UK says that successful behavior change is sometimes “. . . about intervening at the right time. If you contact people within three months of them moving into a new house, it's highly effective &ndash because behavioral patterns haven't re-established themselves yet.“13 Evidence suggests this type of context change can be effective because it shakes up the status quo before allowing it to settle and, in the settling process, new patterns can be shaped. One study asked participants to write an account of a successful or failed life change experience. In analyzing each of these stories, researchers found that 36 percent of successes involved moving to a new location. In contrast, only 13 percent of failures involved moving. Also, 13 percent of successful behavior change involved altering the immediate environment, whereas unsuccessful behavior change was always characterized by no changes in environmental cues.14 So if you're about to make a big change, think about making some new habits while you're at it.
Take advantage of major or permanent disruptions: A major, permanent life change provides one of the easiest, most natural opportunities to create new habits since it disrupts existing routines so completely
4. Practice makes habit: It takes time to build a new habit.
Realistically, no new behavior is going to become part of your life overnight. A study conducted by Phillippa Lally and colleagues at the Health Behaviour Research Centre at UCL in 2009 found that it took anywhere between 18 days (2.5 weeks) and 254 days (over 8 months) to cement a new habit. The average was 66 days.15 And these were pretty simple new behaviors such as eating a piece of fruit with lunch or drinking a glass of water after breakfast.
Moreover, if you are changing a habit, rather than adding a new one, your brain will never forget the old habit – the same neurological loops are still there – and the old behavior will creep back very easily if you let it. So to build a new habit, it is necessary to keep on doing it, for many days, until it becomes automatic.
When you think about building new behavioral habits, think about how to identify the right contextual triggers and remember that contextual triggers can come in all shapes and sizes. Then think about the importance of the reward or reward mix from overt to deeper psychological rewards. And, together with the actual desired behavior, conceptualize the habit goal as a behavioral loop with clear structural foundations and suddenly it will seem more achievable. But also remember that cementing a habit takes time. It can take on average two months to build a new habit, to form and ingrain that neurological loop so perseverance is all.
As for me, I am off to finish my habitual post-article completion push-ups. 88, 89, 90…
1 Derzon, J.H. and Lipsey, M.W. “A Meta-Analysis of the Effectiveness of Mass-Communication for Changing Substance- Use Knowledge, Attitudes, and Behaviour” (2002) in Mass Media and Drug Prevention: Classic and Contemporary Theories and Research, W.D. Crano and M. Burgeon, eds. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 231–58.
4 The change in context must be perceived and noticeable. Some people with very strong habits might fail to notice small changes in their environment. For example, an affirmed car commuter might not necessarily consider cycling to work even when the road they usually use introduces a specially designated cycle lane. In the same way adding, an “eco-wash” setting to a new brand of washing machine might not be enough of a context change to nudge people into choosing it.
9 10 ways to encourage people to cycle to work, cyclescheme.co.uk, 2 August 2013. http://www.cyclescheme.co.uk/community/how-to/10-ways-to-encourage-colle...
10 Chlorine Dispensers for Safe Water, Poverty Action Lab. http://www.povertyactionlab.org/scale-ups/chlorine-dispensers-safe-water
13The Daily Telegraph, 11th Feb 2013: Inside the Coalition's controversial 'Nudge Unit.' http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/9853384/Inside-the-Coalitions-c...
15 “How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world” by P. Lally, Chm Van Jaarsveld, Huw Potts, J Wardle, European Journal of Social Psychology (2010), Volume: 1009, Issue: June 2009, Publisher: JOHN WILEY & SONS LTD, Pages: 998–1009.