This time of year many of us are motivated to make positive changes in our lives. We commit to change and jump in headfirst into establishing our new way of life, and for a few weeks we are focused and meet our goals until the demands of other parts of our life get in the way and our best intentions fall to the wayside. Motivation alone is not enough for us to make the new behavior permanent. What we don’t realize in this scenario is how powerful our unconscious brain is. Think about all the activities you’ve done so far today, how much attention and thought was needed for them? Did you have to exert will power to brush your teeth and make breakfast? Experts say that many of our actions and decisions throughout the day are unconscious, and this means that we do not have to consciously think about or focus on our actions for most of the day. Our brain has evolved to work this way, as it seeks to maximize reward and minimize effort (conscious exertion) by making many behaviors automatic. When we recognize this feature of our brain, we can then take advantage of it to help us form a new habit. Specifically, what we can do is intentionally design our living and workspace to make the desired behavior more likely to happen. If we make small changes to the environment we exist in, we can make it easier for us to make permanent change for the better.
In her book Good Habits, Bad Habits researcher and professor Wendy Wood introduces the idea of friction to aid in thinking about this. If we want to enact a behavior more frequently, we need to reduce friction (make it easier to do). On the other hand, if we want to do something less, we need to increase friction (make it harder to do). Some examples are listed below:
Proximity—placing what we want to do within an easy distance to access it– one example is to place a bowl of fresh fruit out on your counter rather than putting it in the drawer deep in the refrigerator. By having it out where you will see it, you’re making it easier to just grab a piece when you are looking for a snack.
Design social relationships around your new behavior – decide to workout with a friend – this helps you plan and commit to a specific time to work out and you will also enjoy spending time with your friend
Set a Room – if you know you want to work out in the morning then lay out your workout gear the night before. This will serve as a reminder and make it easier for you to just throw on your gear and workout.
Attach a habit-this means that you tie a new habit to one that you already do regularly. For example, if you want to read more books make a new habit of reading for 10 or 15 minutes while you drink your morning coffee.
Proximity – do the opposite of what is said above. For example, don’t buy foods you want to avoid eating-by keeping them out of the house you have to make a trip to the store to get it or if you do buy it put it somewhere hidden and out of sight.
Ask for Help-if you ask a spouse or a friend to help you with avoiding a behavior, they can be there to remind you when you are feeling tempted.
Inconvenience- if you are distracted by social media during work, make it inconvenient to check for updates by removing the apps from your desktop and keep your phone in a different room.
As you are planning goals for yourself in the new year, you will be much more successful if you also think about how to can change your environment to help make your new behavior become automatic.
Dan Karrow, Senior Director – DW Simpson