Setting goals is easy. Fulfilling them is difficult. Why can’t we just force ourselves to go to the gym before or after work? Or choose salad instead of pizza? Or get to work instead of procrastinating?
“Most of us are all too aware of the fact that bad habits are difficult to change. They require little effort, and over time they become more persistent. It is difficult to break bad habits, although we know how useful constructive ones, such as healthy eating and exercise, are on our well-being, self-esteem and overall quality of life,” they explain from Behavior Modification Class, specialists in helping people change their behaviors to create more positive habits.
The “bricks” with which we build habits
Many of the goals we set in life require leaving bad habits behind to form more positive ones. But achieving it is not easy, so we often throw in the towel halfway. On the other hand, if we want to be perseverant we need to understand the psychological mechanism that is at the basis of habit formation.
The psychologist Elliot Berkman, who has dedicated himself to studying the motivational and cognitive factors that contribute to success or failure in achieving our goals, referred to two large dimensions that give rise to our behaviors:
– Dispositional dimension. It includes the skills, abilities and knowledge necessary to implement a certain behavior, such as the ability to plan the steps to follow or the ability to execute an action, without forgetting the cognitive processes involved, such as concentration, inhibitory control and work memory.
– Volitional dimension. It refers to the motivation and the importance given to a behavior. It implies the desire to achieve a goal and prioritize it over other activities, as well as the motivational processes that are at its base, from volition and intention to will or the origin and intensity of the impulse.
When these dimensions are combined, they give rise to four major typologies of action:
– Simple routine behaviors. They require little skill and motivation, such as walking, eating, and other habits related to primary rewards. These behaviors occur so naturally that we are barely aware of them and they generally do not become goals.
– Complex routine behaviors. They require a certain level of skill or knowledge, but little motivation, and are triggered by external stimuli, such as driving a car.
– Simple novel behaviors. These are relatively simple tasks, but that we have never done, such as changing a baby’s diaper. They do not require much skill, but they do require motivation to learn to do them.
– Complex novel behaviors. In this case, it is not only necessary to develop ability, but also motivation since they are tasks that take us out of our comfort zone, such as when we learn to play a musical instrument or want to master a sport.
Most of the goals we set involve the implementation of novel and complex behaviors, as indicated in a study carried out at the University of Oregon. These types of behaviors demand a certain level of effort, skill and motivation.
For example, for many people heating a pizza in the microwave has become a simple routine behavior while preparing a healthy dinner is a new and complex task, although essential to achieve their goal of losing weight or leading a healthier lifestyle.
Routine behaviors make up our old habits, a “default” option that we easily resort to, especially when we are exhausted. To get rid of them we must implement new behaviors and be persistent enough to ensure that they become automated and become those new habits that will allow us to achieve our goals.
However, until that new habit is formed, we will have an uphill climb to make. The good news is that there are many psychological tricks based on the functioning of our brain that will allow us to stay on the right path.
Clarify the reasons and plan the path
The first step in creating a new habit is to objectively evaluate its level of difficulty. To do this, we will have to focus on the nature of the change we want to make and identify the differences with old patterns. It is worth asking ourselves two questions:
1. Do we have the necessary skills or do we need to develop them?
2. Is the main obstacle not having a clear path or a lack of will?
When we identify the most relevant dimension of change, the second step is to delve deeper into the nature of our motivation. In that case, we must ask ourselves:
1. Are we motivated by intrinsic or extrinsic motives?
2. How strong is our motivation?
3. Are we more motivated to achieve something or avoid an unpleasant result?
As a general rule, the more intense and personal the reasons behind the change, the more consistent we will be along the way and the more likely we will achieve our goals.
The third and final step is to further explore the skills we need to implement changes. At this point it is worth clarifying some details:
1. Are we clear about the path to follow to create that habit?
2. Do we need to develop any special skills?
3. Should we look for a reason that motivates us more?
The more specific the steps we must take, the better results we will obtain and the easier it will be for us to develop that habit. Therefore, it is important to start with objectives and a clear path. We must remember that as we repeat a behavior, it will become automated and easier for us, so it will require less and less willpower.
How to change a habit
Make change your priority
Executive functions are essential to change our behavior. Without attention, working memory, inhibitory control, and planning we would simply be slaves to our old habits.
However, given the way our brain is structured, staying focused on the same activity for a long time is difficult because we feel like we are missing out on other opportunities. That’s one of the reasons why we usually sign up for the gym in January and leave in mid-March.
The key to “tricking” our brain is to make that effort become an internal priority. The more important and meaningful a task is to us, the more we will try and the less we will think about all the alternative options. That means that if we want to break a habit we need to reflect on our priorities and make sure we feed intrinsic motives.
Make it easy for us
It’s not just a lack of self-control that drives us to eat that piece of cake at midnight or stay on the couch instead of going for a run. Our brain also has something to do with it.
Our mental processes operate sequentially, not in parallel, which means we must make sure we prioritize the habit we want to form. We need to make sure we practice the necessary behaviors when our cognitive “bandwidth” is at maximum capacity and functioning most efficiently.
For some people that equates to exercising early in the morning, rather than in the afternoon when their willpower is about to run out. For others it may mean eliminating all distractions to focus on more complex, challenging tasks.
In other words, the easier we make it and the fewer decisions we have to make on the fly, the more likely we will be able to develop the habit. Therefore, it is better that we make room in our agenda and plan the necessary tasks in advance, so that everything flows better and these new behaviors do not continually collide with our agenda, forcing us to decide each time.
Reward us at every step
On the other hand, we must remember that motivation does not come from nowhere, but rather lays its foundation in the neural mechanisms of reinforcement learning, which are generated in some of the oldest areas of our brain. For that reason, we are particularly sensitive to rewards and may work hard to recreate the situations that generated them in the hope of receiving them again.
Trying to break our old habits for new behaviors that have never been reinforced means going against our nature. To avoid rowing against the current, it is better to start a change of habits by setting more modest goals and rewarding ourselves every time we achieve them. These rewards will reinforce the habit we want to develop.
Make it personal
Another important detail in creating a habit is to take advantage of the connections between the motivational system and the parts of the brain linked to the “self” and identity. The closer the relationship between a behavior and our core values or sense of self, the greater subjective value it will have.
Goals linked to identity are more likely to be successful than those that are irrelevant or even question it. That means that it doesn’t make much sense to set goals with which we don’t feel identified, just because others are pursuing them or the social environment promotes them.
The key is to ensure that the behaviors we practice are in tune with important parts of our identity. Of course, sometimes that may mean having to reconstruct the way in which we see ourselves, but the important thing is that those goals encourage us to become the person we want to be. That way we can find the extra dose of motivation to not give up in the most difficult moments.
Berkman, E. T. (2018) The Neuroscience of Goals and Behavior Change. Consult Psychol J.; 70(1): 28–44.
Berkman, E. T. & Rock, D. (2014) AIM: An integrative model of goal pursuit. NeuroLeadership Journal; 5:1–11.
Elliot, A. J. & Harackiewicz, J. M. (1994) Goal setting, achievement orientation, and intrinsic motivation: A mediational analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology;66(5):968–980.