How to make a New Year’s resolution that will last forever – the science of habit formation

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Most New Year’s resolutions have a success rate in the teens – in some studies fewer than 8% of us ever stick to our plan (Journal of Clinical Psychology, 13th Dec, 2012). There must be a better way to ‘plan’?

There is; It delivers a 50% success rate, and it involves habit formation.


Effortful self-control – or what behavioural economists call time-inconsistent preferencing – is likely the first place many of us look for the strength to stick to a resolution. And we rarely venture further. We should. It’s not effortful self-control – agency – that determines our success, but rather, it’s environmental conditions that hold habits in place. I’ve <<written about habits and the behavioural lock-in here>> so won’t replicate it in this post (do read, it’s interesting background if nothing else) but I will stress its pernicious side by quoting Ralph Keeney, of Duke University:

“America’s top killer isn’t cancer, or heart disease, or smoking, or obesity. It’s our inability to overcome our own short-term behaviour”
Ralph Keeney, of Duke University


So if our short-term behaviour is formed of habits that behave as a behavioural lock-in, do we try and break habits? Or do we try and use habits?


Diagnosis, prognosis, treatment


UCL’s study into habit formation is extraordinary (<<How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world>>). Not because it’s well written, or well regarded, or robust (it is all of these things) but because it’s the first time habit formation itself is described. Before, papers had attempted to classify what is, and what isn’t, a habit; for sure diagnosis is useful, but more was needed.


What do studies tell us about resolutions and habit?


In the study of how are habits formed Phillippa Lally, Cornelia H. M. Van Jaarsveld, Henry W. W. Potts And Jane Wardle, From University College London, London, UK, took 96 participants (30 men, 66 women) who were predominantly postgraduate students (two were undergraduates) with a mean age of 27 (range 21–45). The majority (65%) were White and born in the UK or Europe. They asked them to choose either a healthy eating, drinking behaviour, or exercise behaviour from a list. These had to be actions that they would like to make into a habit. Examples are:

  • - doing 50 sit-ups after morning coffee
  • - drinking a bottle of water with lunch
  • - eating a piece of fruit with lunch
  • - running for 15 minutes before dinner


The first thing you’ll probably notice about these is they seem a little small. They are not the usual grand ill-defined New Year’s plans such as ‘lose weight’, ‘get fit’, or ‘watch less telly’. Nor are they grand well-defined plans such as ‘run a 10k race by the end of June’, or ‘lose 14lbs before my summer holiday’, or ‘watch two fewer hours of television per week’. They are small, defined, and attached to an existing behaviour. (Don’t fall for false hope syndrome or cultural procrastination (<<Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail>>, Psychology Today)).


How do you form a health habit?


To make a successful New Year’s resolution one must pick an action that is:

  • (i) Something you do not do already
  • (ii) Can be performed in response to a salient daily event (cue)
  • (iii) has a cue that occurs every day and only once a day


That’s really, it. Done. Do that and you’re well on your way to forming a habit that will deliver you a benefit. That is after all the definition of a New Year’s resolution.


You could leave the post here and get on with it, but you might want to known a little more about what to expect, and what else to do to make the addition or subtraction of an action, stick.


Remember…

.

1. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail
Get organised up front because performing an action for the first time requires planning (whether that’s long-term planning or planning seconds before you act – without planning you can’t do anything). That planning will pay off because “…behaviour transfers to cues in the environment that activate an automatic response: a habit.”


2. It gets easier as time goes by
And not only are you transferring the burden of action to cues in your immediate environment, habit formation does not follow a linear progression – it is a curve with a steep beginning so “…early repetitions result in larger increases in automaticity than those later in the habit formation process”. That feels good right?


3. Failure is an option (but only for a week)
In 1890 William James argued in his book <<The Principles of Psychology>> that habit formation required uninterrupted performance, but this is unachievable in the real world and yet we all still form habits. Similarly, Lally’s research indicates missing the opportunity to form a habit every now and then does not have a significant impact on formation of the habit – as long as it’s not greater than a week. So if you miss out on your glass of water one lunchtime, you will not destroy the effort you have invested – as observed, there’s only a very small decrease in automaticity. But don’t separate outright failure to do the action on one day with serial inconsistency in performing the action – pouring a glass of water only 1-3 times a week, at varying times after various meals, on various days, will not form the habit. Failure is an option (but only for a week).


4. Do it in the same place, not necessarily at the same time
Repeating a behaviour in a situation-consistent way allows cue response links to be formed better than time-consistent ways. Time cues require effortful monitoring for them to be identified, whereas memory research tells us that external situations cue internal actions comparatively effortlessly. I know I always check for my keys every time I leave a residential front door irrespective of what time I leave the house, or indeed, irrespective of who’s house it is (instigated by a rather dull event where I locked myself out of a newly bought flat 30 minutes after taking responsibility for ALL the keys and leaving them inside). Situational, not time cues are powerful; take advantage.


5. Rewards. Rewards?
Forget rewards. Or, don’t worry about them. Give yourself one if you like, but know that the Lally et al’s study “provided no extrinsic rewards, indicating that they are not required for habit development.” But do bear in mind that the actions in the study were selected by the participants so were likely to have been intrinsically rewarding. Choose wisely, and forget elaborate reward mechanisms.


6. Simplicity
Bas Verplanken (<<2006, Beyond frequency: Habit as a mental construct. British Journal of Social Psychology>>) tells us that for the same number of repetitions a simple behaviour has a higher habit score than a complex behaviour. Make it <<simples>>. (Apologies for that link…)


6. Not all behaviours are equal
Exercise is more complex, and takes longer to form a habit, than dietary actions. As far as we can tell, the duration needed to reach the point where an action is pretty much embedded to the point where it feels ‘weird’ not to do it (i.e. 95% of the asymptote) is:

  • 59 days for drinking action
  • 65 days for eating action
  • 91 days for an exercise action


This can vary person-by-person wildly though – the study results varied from 18 to 254 days to form a habit. So you might pick a lucky one, or not. Either way, pick what’s good for you, go small, and you’ll be fine. (And ignore the ‘60 days for a habit to form’ rubbish that slops around the internet – it’s a repeated and misquoted reference to the length of time broken bones take to heal.)

_________________

We must remember a habit once formed is an automatic action – we never need consciously think of it again. Ever. For the rest of our lives. (Only the cue that fires it. Possibly.) Couple that with the fact that of those involved in the UCL habit study, fully 50% successfully formed a habit.

How’s that for a New Year’s resolution?

• Oliver (LinkedIn) is author of the behavioural communication book Inspiring Sustainable Behaviour: 19 Ways To Ask For Change published by Routledge, available in most countries.
• Is a speaker and commentator on behaviour

• Member of the Influence Advisory Panel
• Join the London Behavioural Economics Network Meetup group
• Join the London Behavioural Economics Network on Facebook


2 Comments

Marion Orr says:

June 5, 2013 at 4:25 am

Hi, nice article. I really like it!

Reply

Interim Management says:

January 2, 2017 at 11:29 am

Yeah, me too.

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