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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.

It’s that time of year again - a new year, a new you. No doubt your social media feeds have been filled with advice on how you can unleash your inner Richard Branson and be more productive in 2017. Rather than talk about working, I’m going to focus on the other side of the coin – rest and recovery. You see we’re not the machines that we try to be – in fact, much of our performance can be attributed to how well we rest and recover when we’re not working.

Let’s start with sleep…

As a workforce we’re tired. During the week most of us don’t get enough sleep – and when we’re busy it’s often the first thing that we sacrifice. An estimated 1/3 workers get less than 6 hours sleep a night1. But sleep matters. Decades of research tells us that the quality and quantity of sleep we get has a profound influence on our memory, attention, our ability to process information and capacity to manage our emotions. While the amount of sleep we each need varies with age and from person to person, if you’re currently getting less than 7 hours a night, forming a new habit where you go to bed earlier could have a dramatic impact on how you experience your work.

Recovery during your down time

During our working day, we’re constantly responding to various pressures and demands, drawing on our own physical, psychological and emotional resources to be able to respond effectively. However these resources are finite – and recovery is a physiological need that we all have. The quality of the rest we get during our evenings and weekends can have a profound effect on our performance back at work.

Rest is important – for example, one study found that individuals who returned to work feeling well rested were more productive, showed greater personal initiative, engaged in more organisational citizenship behaviours (voluntarily going beyond what is expected in your role, such as helping out a colleague), and reported that their work felt easier to complete2. But feeling rested is not simply a function of how long we stay away from the office – but rather what we do with the time. In particular, engaging in activities that draw on different resources to the ones we use at work, or that replenish those we have lost during the day can support our recovery. Three types of activity have been associated with greater recovery:

● Psychological detachment
Mentally ‘switching off’ from work – thinking about something else, rather than continuing to ruminate on what happened during the day. Research shows that this can improve mood, reduce negative emotions experienced during leisure time and increase performance once back at work2. But detaching from work can be difficult – very rarely do we end the day with everything neatly tied off. However, simple changes to how you structure your time – such focusing on bigger tasks in the morning, and tackling the smaller tasks towards the end of the day can make a difference. When you do run out of time, writing down where, when and how you will finish any incomplete tasks before you leave work can help you switch off3.

● Relaxation
Any activity that does not place any further demands on you and that allows you to feel calm. This can include activities such as mindfulness meditation, yoga or listening to music, all of which you can do during the working day or at lunchtime. A study in Germany found that individuals who engaged in Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) during their lunchtime experienced a significant reduction in their levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, both in and outside of work, compared to their colleagues4.

● Mastery experiences
These are any activities that give a sense of achievement or personal development. This can include activities such as learning a new language or instrument. Or exercise - for example going for a run, or resistance training. It could even include successfully assembling some flat-pack furniture! Essentially any tasks that give a sense of accomplishment or progression can count as mastery experiences. Research shows that these even simple tasks can be critical for maintaining self-esteem and self-efficacy – particularly when encountering setbacks at work2.

We’re not designed to work continuously – we need regular recovery to perform at our best. By giving some thought now to how you spend your downtime, and by resting smarter, you’ll notice a big difference this year.

1 Luckhaupt, S. E., Tak, S., & Calvert, G. M. (2010). The prevalence of short sleep duration by industry and occupation in the National Health Interview Survey. Sleep, 33, 149–159.

2 Binnewies, C., Sonnentag, S., and Mojza, E. (2010). Recovery during the weekend and fluctuations in weekly job performance: A week-level study examining intra-individual relationships. Journal of Occuptational and Organizational Psychology, 83, 419-441.

3 Smit, B. (2016). Successfully leaving work at work: The self-regulatory underpinnings of psychological detachment. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 89, 493-514.

4 Krajewski, J., Sauerland, M., Wieland, R. (2011). Relaxation-induced cortisol changes within lunch breaks – an experimental longitudinal worksite field study. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 84, 382-394.

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