Like clockwork, the topic of “habits” comes around this time of the year. And the conversation always leads to time — specifically, “how long do I have to suffer until the thing I don’t want to do now, becomes something that happens automatically?”. Learn why it takes longer than 21 days to build a habit.
Well, let’s table that for a second, and actually talk about how something might become a habit.
Psychologists are always studying this, and this year, the Hidden Brain podcast on NPR interviewed Wendy Wood, a researcher who just wrote a book about it.
So if you’re working on building some new habits or looking to phase some out, you might be surprised to hear Wendy’s take on it — specifically that unlike what we’ve always been told, willpower is NOT actually the answer.
She explains that most of our actions are NOT driven by conscious behavior, so we can’t change them by consciously telling ourselves that something is good for us or bad for us. Most of our actions are actually autopilot responses.
Example; knowing that you should eat healthier or start working out consistently doesn’t actually mean you’re more likely to do it. Surprise, surprise.
So what is it?? What actually helps us build habits?
She says that one way to build habits is to remove barriers, or make it easier for yourself to do that thing that you want to do.
Let’s say you know your day gets crazy and unpredictable in the afternoons, but you want to workout regularly. So you have to find a way to put your workout in the easiest most predictable time slot you can (maybe a 5:30 or 6:00 am class). Before you close down this post and say “yea right”, maybe you can entertain the idea that by laying your clothes out the night before (so your brain doesn’t make excuses in the morning), you can actually make it to that early morning class.
Basically we have to do anything and everything to make a new behavior “easier” to do and easier to make automatic.
If you’re curious to hear more about this topic, check out this episode of hidden brain.
Also, here’s a link to Wendy’s book if you want to go deep.