Why habit is the key to better living

27 May 2014

Want a tip on how to be more productive? To sleep better? To feel your best? Of course you do. We all do.

It seems we can’t turnaround without being smacked in the face with yet another marketing campaign promising the solution to being the best ‘you’ you can be.

And despite visiting health retreats, following the advice of productivity gurus and investing in time-saving tools like smartphones and microwaves we all seem more stressed and time pressured than ever.

If we know what we should be doing and we know why we should do it, why don’t we?

The habit trap

Habits account for over 40% of our behaviour every day. Everything from how to put on shoes and brush our teeth to how we get to work, decide what and when to eat and interact with colleagues we do while on auto-pilot.

The trap with habits is that they save us effort at the time but can lead to self-defeating behaviours like overeating, under-exercising, going to sleep too late, spending too much time watching TV or using social media. These ‘bad habits’ are why we are not as productive as we could be, why we are tired, fat and unfit.

We blame being time poor when we should really be blaming ourselves for not engineering the right habits.

Relationship between bad habits and satisfaction with life

Interested in how habits are impacting enjoyment of life, I surveyed 100 people about the frequency in which they engaged in bad habits and how satisfied they were that they were getting the most out of every day.

Of the 18 bad habits respondents were asked about, 10 are negatively correlated with satisfaction – in other words, if we have them we are less likely to be feeling good about life.

  • Three are related to procrastination; putting off exercise, work, or sleep. (I call these Time habits).
  • Three are choices about what we consume; soft drink, unhealthy food, and smoking. (I call these Choice habits).
  • And four relate to the extent to which we do something; overeating, over-shopping, watching too much TV/gaming or spending too much time on internet/social media. (I call these Quantity habits).

The remaining eight bad habits either had no relationship with satisfaction (working too much, multi-tasking while driving, nail biting and overspending) or were positively correlated. Yes, positively! People who put off housework, did too much exercise, drank too much or at inappropriate times were more likely to report higher satisfaction with life, and I expect this has a lot to do with joie de vivre, living for now. (And before you get excited by this remember we’re talking about correlation not causation, so you won’t necessarily be more satisfied by drinking more.)

What and why isn’t the problem, it’s knowing how

What I find so interesting about habits is we all know which ones are good and which are bad. We know what we should do and we know why. The stumbling block seems to be knowing how; how to make good habits and break bad ones.

Figure 1: The Habit Gap

The process I use with clients to make and break habits is based around a combination of Stanford Professor BJ Fogg's Behaviour Model (where you need motivation, ability and a trigger to get behaviour to happen) and Charles Duhigg's Cue-Routine-Reward habit loop. Here's a brief outline.

To make a habit:

1. Start by understanding the reward you are seeking to experience

2. Design the sequence of behaviours that will result in that payoff and

3. Identify the cue that will trigger you to start that behavioural routine

For example, I am trying to make meditation a habit (a Time Habit). My reward is a state of mindfulness that improves my productivity, the sequence is to drop a cushion from my couch onto the floor and to sit on it before breathing deeply for 20 breaths, and the cue is my last Tai Chi move.

To break a habit:

1. Understand the reward – what payoff are you getting from the behaviour

2. Remove the cue so you are simply not triggered to behave, and

3. If that's not possible, either make the routine hard to do and/or replace the existing routine with a new one.

For example, I am trying to stop checking my phone so often (a Quantity habit). The reward I get from checking my phone is momentary stimulation. The cue is a feeling of boredom. Given boredom can be hard to stop, I am making it harder to check my phone by placing it out of arm's reach.

Habits are the key to better living

Through my study and use of behavioural science I am convinced that habits are the key to maximising how we live every day. By embedding the right ones and dismantling the bad our habits allow us to default to choices that serve our short and long-term needs. We don’t have to think about the right thing to do because we’ve already done it. So want to be more productive? Sleep better? Feel your best? Stop looking outside for quick fixes and instead focus on correcting your habits.

Last modified on Tuesday, 27 May 2014 09:41
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Bri Williams

Bri Williams runs People Patterns Pty Ltd, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues.

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