If you’ve struggled to maintain a New Years’ resolution, you’re certainly not alone. Whether it was trying to give up smoking, get in shape, or change the way you work, behavioural change can be difficult.So why is it so difficult?
We like to think that we’re consciously in control of everything we do, but much of our behaviour is unconscious, shaped by our experience, and triggered by our surroundings. Habits are ultimately what drives much of our behaviour, and are key to sustaining a new behaviour. It’s somewhat ironic that the habits we don’t want are often those that we form. However it’s not too late to give your New Year’s resolution another go – here’s some psychology that may help you make the change:Introducing a new behaviour
We start with intentions, but recent research shows us that intentions by themselves are not enough. We form lasting habits when we repeat a behaviour consistently in a specific context, so to make a behaviour automatic, we need to also think about context - where and when we’re doing it.
If you’ve attended our diversity training, you’ll be familiar with an ‘Implementation Intention’ as a method of encouraging new behaviour. These go beyond intentions (the what) to also pin down the context (the when). And we know that the simple act of making these specific, ‘If-Then’ statements in our minds (e.g. ‘when I see the turning for the gym, I will turn left’) can increase the likelihood of follow-through.
How do they work? When we create these ‘If-then’ statements, our brains begin to associate the situation with the behaviour in our minds, much in the same way that established habits work (albeit weaker). So when the situation arises, it’s much easier for us to trigger the behaviour – it requires less conscious effort or deliberation.
Once you have a clear ‘If-then’ intention in your mind, keeping the context the same as much as possible (i.e. same time of day, location) each time you repeat the behaviour will help to form a habit. And research shows that people with strong habits are more likely to have a regular routine. For example, one study looking at gym users found that 90% of regular gym users had a regular time and location that triggered their behaviour.Breaking an old habit
Whilst habits are key to sustaining new behaviour, they’re also the reason why changing existing behaviour can be such a pain. If you’re trying to change an existing habit, research suggests that Implementation Intentions are less effective as they’re having to compete with the more established associations. So how do we change our old habits? In summary there are two approaches:
● Where possible, remove the temptation. Remove whatever it is that is triggering your behaviour. Do you procrastinate by clicking on email pop-ups? Disable the pop-up. Do you buy a coffee when you walk past the coffee shop on the way to work? Try a different route. If you can’t remove completely, can you change the context? Habits are very context-dependent. This is also why many organisations find that office moves are a great time for behavioural change interventions – old cues are disrupted, freeing up people to act on their new intentions.
● Change the context. Sometimes you can’t remove the cues. Perhaps you can’t magic yourself to a different office, or remove the vending machine. If that’s the case, try changing the context as much as possible and investing your effort on deliberately replacing your usual response with a better one (e.g. when hungry at your desk, grabbing an apple rather than walking to the vending machine).
There’s no doubting behaviour change can be difficult, but investing your effort in the right way will eventually pay off.