Hands up… how many times have you set yourself a goal to change a habit you consider to be unhealthy or unproductive and then wandered right off track?
Did you ditch the diet at the first sight of pastries in the office? Watch your ‘Dry January’ plans fade into oblivion after post-work drinks on the first Friday of the month? Or hit the snooze button more times than you remember, when you promised yourself you would make it to the gym that morning?
You are not alone in this inner struggle. The desire to change our behaviours in order to optimise health, energy, productivity, happiness and success are common goals that unite us. However, changing old habits and maintaining new ones, as you have probably discovered, is hard. And there is a good reason why.
The habit of a lifetime
Habits are behavioural rituals that we perform automatically. Freeing up our brain’s precious resources to enable us to carry out more complex tasks. Habits are so ingrained within our brains that neuroscientists have linked a part of the brain called the basal ganglia to our habit-making behaviours. This discovery has explained the ability of some people to continue habit-led behaviour, even after a brain injury.
We build up these rituals over a period of time, not just in our behaviours, but in our memory systems too. For example, the route you drive to work without having to think about. Your repetitive morning routine or the behaviours you have adopted as a way of coping with stress. Habits are the result of practise and repetition, which is why it requires the same discipline to break them.
When it comes to forming a new habit there really is no magic formula. The truth is, it takes as long as it takes. But one psychologist who has been studying the subject for over 20-years has developed a framework to support behaviour change. The Fogg Behaviour Model proposes that there are three essential requirements in order for a change in behaviour to occur: Motivation, Ability, and a Prompt. The theory suggests that as a person’s motivation and ability to perform the desired behaviour increase, the more likely it is that they will achieve the outcome they want. After all, the easier something is to do, the less motivation you need to do it – and a 100-day challenge is a great place to start.
- Motivation – Decide what you really want to change
Everyone has a different reason for wanting to form new habits. You may want to get fitter, become more organised, improve your finances, put down your phone, develop stronger social connections or simply get more sleep. Whatever your reason, change is achievable – but make it individual. Do not base your goal on a trend or something you think other people expect you to change. Self-improvement is about your life, so start with what matters most to you.
- Ability – Set yourself an achievable goal
Goal-setting is part of our human evolution, adding purpose and meaning to our existence as we strive for self-improvement. Setting an achievable target gives you a realistic shot of retraining your brain into adopting new habits. If you want to start running, do not sign yourself up for the first marathon; start by aiming for five or ten kilometres and commit to a training plan over 100 days. Perhaps you want to spend less time online, but it is unrealistic to think you can disconnect yourself completely. Instead, leave your phone in a different room when you go to bed at night, or use an app like freedom to block distracting websites and help you focus.
- Prompt – Remove the obstacles
We often fail to change our behaviours because we place obstacles in front of us – ‘I do not have the time/money/energy/ability’. However, with just a few small strategies we can remove these obstacles and build in prompts that cue positive behavioural change. For example, if you are trying to be a better timekeeper, try using phone alarms to remind you of important appointments. You can schedule multiple notifications days/hours or minutes before to keep you on track. Or perhaps you reach for junk food when you start to feel stressed; instead, keep a healthy snack and bottle of water to hand and substitute the junk to create a more positive association. You cannot always remove the triggers, but you can start to remove the obstacles preventing your success.
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