How’s everyone doing with their New Year’s Resolutions? If the answer is “not great,” don’t worry — there’s a science to getting in or out of habits. You’ve probably trotted past all the tired tropes — one day at a time, do something small every day, focus on the process, set short-term goals — but here’s a wired, science-backed approach to help break old routines and kickstart the practices you want.
Let’s face it: Taking things a day at a time and trying to build new habits with short-term goals does help, but in truth, these ideas are really difficult to internalize. They’re also not very motivating, either, because none of these tips will help you work through the frustration and impatience that can come with any new habit.
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Many people who set intentional actions overlook a critical ingredient for any habit, Amanda Rebar, a psychology professor at Central Queensland University in Australia, tells Inverse: Pleasure.
But first, let’s get back to basics: What even is a habit?
A habit is a routine behavior often performed repetitively and sometimes even unconsciously.
Humans develop habits as a sort of shortcut for the brain; if the brain internalizes repetitive behaviors, it can devote more energy and attention to processing unpredictable problems and experiences that arise throughout the day.
Habits are often triggered by cues, whether they are environmental, emotional or sensual, or to do with the time of day. If you brush your teeth when you wake up and right before you go to bed every day, then that is a habit. Your brain has linked teeth-brushing with getting up or going to sleep, so it doesn’t have to work out again and again at what point in the day you should brush your teeth. It already knows.
How to start a habit
If you break a habit, you start a new habit — it’s basically a swap.
“Think about trading out a behavior that has the same outcome,” Rebar explains to Inverse. She says that, for example, people who quit smoking might eat as a replacement habit to deal with excess stress. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — if a new habit helps someone break a habit they want to quit, then it’s a success.
Attaching the new habit to the same cues and sense of reward as the old habit helps the brain slot in your new practice. If you associate watching a movie with eating ice cream and you want to eat less refined sugar, try to watch movies while eating fruit. All that you are changing out is the sweet treat — and significantly boosting your nutrition at the same time.
If you want to start a new habit, the easiest way to cultivate it is to tack it on to an already set part of your routine, Rebar says.
“As you go through your day, think: ‘Is this what I want to be doing?’”
Rebar posits a scenario: “When I wake up I have my cup of coffee, then I'll take the dog for a walk.”
“If you continue to do that over and over again, your mind will learn to associate that cue of ‘Okay, this is the part of the routine I’m in.’”
The cup of coffee becomes the cue for the habit to walk the dog. In this scenario, Rebar has morning coffee routine already established, so she doesn’t have to modify any other regular behavior to trigger the dog walking habit.
The caffeine from the coffee is useful in itself, she says. People who want to exercise more might gain extra motivation from drinking coffee as a cue to do a workout — they can link the burst of energy to the release of endorphins — pleasure signals — associated with exercise.
But what really matters most, Rebar says, is enjoyment.
When it comes to habits, there is often such an emphasis on discipline and will-power and whether or not you actually enjoy a new habit is left out of the equation. Perhaps your new habit is “good,” but difficult (like exercising five days a week), or you quit a “bad” habit that’s easy and fun but not very good for you (like pouring salt all over your food) — it still doesn’t mean your new habit must be boring or odious.
“You’re going to be way better off if you find something rewarding, as opposed to, ‘instead of smoking, I’m gonna eat a bite of celery.’ That’s not going to work unless you have a particular love of celery,” she says.
Another example she gives is to only listen to your favorite podcast while you’re exercising. Then, you associate the feelings of enjoyment you get from listening to the podcast with the idea of exercising. It may even serve as an incentive to exercise more.
How to tell a good habit from a bad one
This may seem obvious: Good habits include established, healthful practices, like drinking lots of water, going to bed early, and so on. But just because we know sleep is beneficial for the brain and the body the mantra that you should go to sleep before midnight doesn’t account for your particular situation. For you, a win might be just going to sleep one hour earlier than you did before — 1 a.m. instead of 2 a.m.
Rebar explains that our behavior is in some ways governed by dual processes: our value system, and unconscious behaviors.
“It’s very rare for you to reflect on your long-term values and goals and drive your behavior based on those,” she says. “It’s more likely that you make one-off decisions.”
“Focus on short term benefits that you’re getting.”
A New Year’s resolution, for example, is a typical one-off decision one may make based on their values — but not their actual lived experiences.
Habits can make your day easier, so the less work the brain has to do the better. We don’t often think consciously about each automatic decision our brain makes throughout the day — we’re thirsty, so we drink water, for example — and how these choices fit within our value system.
Rebar recommends two ways to align your values with your automatic habits:
“First, try to shift some of your habits and biases more in line with your values and beliefs. Be aware of when they don’t align. As you go through your day, think: ‘Is this what I want to be doing?’ and then you can become aware of what you want to change.”
If that sounds hard, it’s because it is hard. Your brain isn’t used to questioning every little decision you make, and the extra consideration gums up the works. But it’s a short-term pause meant for long-term change.
The second method is to force your automatic habits and beliefs to align, Rebar says.
“If you have a long term goal of not dying of a heart attack, and you're eating healthy and exercising every day, then that’s in line,” she says.
The hard part comes when your values and and behaviors oppose one another. If you move to a new city and want to make new friends, for example, making a habit of staying in every night will likely not help you achieve your goal.
How to make a new habit stick
It’s important to remember that habits exist on a gradient, Rebar says. If someone who doesn’t exercise at all wants to move more, the goal doesn’t have to be “run a marathon in 12 weeks” or “lose 12 pounds.” Instead, Rebar says, it could be something like “get my heart-rate up three times a week.”
Basically, if you make your goal practicing the habit, then you will succeed every time you do the habit. If you hate running, don’t force it in order to move more — try a weekly dance party.
Enjoyment is the key. Some habits will be easier to stick with than others because they offer instant gratification. For habits with a delayed pay-off, like skipping the extra salt on your food, try to cultivate instant gratification within the process, Rebar says.
“Try to focus on short term benefits that you’re getting: Other senses of enjoyment, satisfaction, or making your life more efficient are things our brain really likes,” Rebar says.