It’s that time again: Each January, millions of Americans avidly resolve to improve themselves for the year ahead. Unfortunately, the vast majority end up breaking those New Year’s resolutions by February. We don’t fail because we lack willpower or stop caring about our goals, though. Rather, it may be that we don’t fully understand the science behind making behavioral changes.
Wendy Wood, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California and author of the book Good Habits, Bad Habits, has spent decades studying the topic. One surprising finding she’s made through her research is that 43% of all human behavior is habitual — and being cognizant of that statistic can greatly influence how we approach setting goals.
“It indicates that an awful lot of our efforts to change our behavior really need to be focused on changing our habits, not convincing ourselves about the right things to do, which is what we spend a lot of time doing,” Wood told Nice News, adding: “Instead, we need to be thinking a bit more strategically about what habits are and how we can change them.”
So, what are habits?
“Habits are a way that we learn,” she explained. “They’re really a learning system. They’re how your brain codes the behaviors that are working for you in some way, in the sense that you get a reward for them. And the reward could be nothing more than clean teeth in the morning or getting to work on time.”
Once an action becomes a habit, that behavior becomes largely automatic — something that doesn’t require a second thought. And therein lies the key to forming new habits: getting out of our heads. Recognizing why you want to change may be helpful for identifying areas to improve, but it isn’t enough to make those changes happen — in fact, thinking about something before we do it is essentially the opposite of acting habitually.
To achieve the latter, we must tangibly set ourselves up for success by prioritizing two essential elements.
Make It Fun
“People stick with behaviors that are immediately rewarding, that are fun or enjoyable in some way,” said Wood. She cited a study that found people tended to keep New Year’s resolutions that they considered enjoyable, but didn’t necessarily keep resolutions they rated as life-changing and important. And that’s surprising, she added, “because the reason we make New Year’s resolutions is to change our lives.”
This is why immediate rewards are crucial when it comes to changing behaviors: The abstract knowledge that you’ll have abs of steel if you pump iron five times a week for six months is not going to do much for getting you out of bed and to the gym at 5 a.m.
But maybe you love to dance, and thus would enjoy rocking out to a virtual zumba sesh in your living room. “Depending upon who you are, maybe buying fancy clothes to work out in will make it fun for you,” Wood said. “Or maybe doing it with a friend will make it fun for you.”
The social psychologist has a real-world example of her own: “I used to be a runner and I loved running outside,” she shared. “It was just a sense of freedom. It just kept me doing it. But I got older, and I’m not so able to run now. So I bought myself an elliptical machine to work out, hoping to simulate the same experience.”
She continued: “And it did in some ways, but it was just horribly boring, and I couldn’t make myself do it. It was just tedious. Until I figured out that I could read trashy novels and watch stupid TV shows while I work out. I don’t usually have time to do those things during my day. But if I did them when I was working out, it made working out fun. And I now have a pretty strong elliptical habit because I enjoy it.”
Make It Easy
Hand in hand with making a behavior fun is making it easy to accomplish. And that doesn’t mean making the new habit itself easy, like only reading one chapter of a book per night (though some experts do recommend starting with smaller goals). In this case, making the goal easy to accomplish means reducing something behavioral scientists call friction.
“There’s good data that people really don’t recognize the importance of making things easy — we call it reducing friction on the behavior — but it’s very powerful,” Wood explained.
She cited a study on people who belonged to paid fitness centers or gyms. “What the researchers found was that if you only have to travel a couple of miles to get to your gym, you are much more likely to go. People went on average five times a month. But if you have to travel over 5 miles to your gym, you’re likely to go only once a month.”
It seems simple enough, but it’s not typically the way we think about fitness, according to Wood.
“We think we go to the gym when we decide that it’s really important to us, and we’re going to actually follow through on our commitment to get fit,” she said. “But making it convenient and easy, reducing that friction, is going to make it possible for people to follow through.”
Other ways to make actions easier to accomplish include placing daily vitamins next to your coffee machine or on your bedside table; creating a special drawer for bills, coupons, and financial records if your goal is to get on a budget; and prepping healthy meals in advance, when you have the most time and energy.
The same can be said when it comes to breaking bad habits, but instead of making the behavior easier to accomplish, you should try making it harder. If you’ve decided to stop drinking alcohol for Dry January, discard all of the bottles in your house and move all your wine glasses to a cabinet you can’t reach without a step stool. Want to curb your snacking habit? Put those bags of chips all the way in the back of your pantry.
“It sounds so simple that it shouldn’t have much of an effect, but there is good research data showing that distance is friction,” Wood said. “Just like distance to the gym is a bad thing, distance to your snacks, having them out of sight, hard to get to, that’s a good thing.”
Bonus Tip: Don’t Get Discouraged
While repetition is key to building or breaking a habit — and once you make something fun and remove friction, you’re far more likely to repeat the action — that doesn’t mean there won’t be hiccups. But those inevitable instances don’t have to derail you completely.
“Don’t get discouraged,” Wood emphasized, adding: “If you miss a day or miss two days, that habit memory will still be there for you to start building on again. The issue is just keep doing it over and over again as often as you can in the same context. And over time, that will become sort of second nature to you. It will become your habit. So don’t get too frustrated with yourself. Building a habit takes time.”