Browsing the archives for the habit formation tag.
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The Tipping Point of a Habit

Self-motivation examples

A couple of posts ago I mentioned Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, which digs into the ways phenomena go from puttering along to succeeding wildly, whether we’re talking about a book becoming a bestseller, a disease becoming an epidemic, or a big drop in violent crime. While Gladwell is specifically talking about social phenomena–how ideas and behaviors spread among people–it’s interesting to think about the possibility that tipping points may well apply to our own psychology, specifically in terms of a behavior transforming into a much more robust and consistent habit.

A quick disclaimer: the theory I’m putting out here is based on analogy, not research. It’s just an idea. If you believe Gladwell’s well-considered argument that making small changes like getting graffiti off subway cars and cracking down on people who demand money for squeegeeing car windows in traffic actually led to an enormous decrease in violent crime in New York City over a period of time, that doesn’t prove that making small changes in our own experience or thinking can tip a behavior into a habit.

Tipping points=easier habit formation?
And yet … much of the other material I’ve gathered for this site over the last few years does seem to support that idea. And if we really can think of habits as having tipping points, then that transforms our focus in terms of developing new habits. Instead of having to find huge resources to get ourselves to repeat a behavior over and over with great effort for months (see “How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?“), we might mainly need to find the tweaks we would need to make repeating that behavior a lot easier.

Don’t get me wrong: creating a good habit (or breaking a bad one) is going to require time, effort, and attention no matter how you slice it. It’s just a matter of how easy and enjoyable that time, effort, and attention is. If habits have tipping points, then there may be a much easier way to create them than we’ve been used to thinking.

How my exercise habit tipped
I won’t go into this too deeply all in today’s post, but the basic idea is that relatively small changes we can make to circumstances might make a big difference in how our habits develop–if they’re the right small changes. I’ll give one example of my own, of when regular exercise became a kind of devotion for me instead of a chore. What made the difference wasn’t better scheduling, improving my attitude, or renewing my commitment: it was taking my workouts out of my own hands.

I started studying Taekwondo about four years ago (see my articles “Finding Exercise You Love: The Taekwondo Example” and “Black belt“). I had been used to getting myself out running regularly, which meant I always had to choose to run, find time to do it, choose how far I would go, and so on. Taekwondo was different: the times were set, and I had to show up for them or miss out. The length of the workout and the specific activities were also set. This one change–selecting a different exercise, which completely changed the context of my exercising–hugely simplified my problem of getting enough exercise, and my desire to get better at Taekwondo kept me coming back to class. Over time, all of this associated exercise powerfully for me with enjoyment, feeling good, and confidence. When I think of exercising now, these are the main things that come to mind, the mood boost and the pride I can take in what I’m doing. And even when I’m going running now or doing something other than Taekwondo, that kind of association draws me forward into exercise instead of repelling me, whereas thinking about the physical strain or being fat or the bad weather might be much more discouraging to someone who’s trying to exercise.

What was your tipping point?
I hope to write more on this topic in future. In the mean time, I’d be glad to hear from you: was there a tipping point for you in a key habit you’ve developed in your life? If so, what was it?

Photo by Captainspears23

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How to Make Habits Form More Quickly


While it always takes time for a habit to form, if we want to encourage one to take hold, here are some key things we can do:

  1. Do it more often. Each repetition of a behavior helps to strengthen the neural connections that can make that behavior automatic.
  2. Skip the excuses and exceptions. While nobody’s perfect, it’s important to keep in mind that any time we skip a day or decide to let things slide because of “special circumstances” sets things backward and delays the formation of a habit. (See “How Not to Make Excuses“)
  3. Plan in advance. Sometimes we don’t have a lot of attention to spare to think about a goal at the times when we need to make key choices. By planning ahead when we do have a few moments to think, we can have the right choices mapped out for us and increase our chances of making them.
  4. Think, visualize, discuss, daydream. The more time we put into thinking about our goals and imagining the payoffs, the easier it is to tap into motivation when we need it. Use a daily commute, time waiting for appointments, time in the shower, and even conversations with friends to spend more brain time on your goal.
  5. Simplify. The more we make our desired behaviors simple to manage, the more likely we are to be successful managing them. Use tools, regular events, well-thought-out systems, and repeatable behaviors to stay on track.
  6. Find the appeal. It’s much easier to keep to a course of action when it’s something we think of ourselves as enjoying instead of something we think of as a chore or limitation.  Focus as much as possible on the things that make a behavior appealing, and be willing to try to find some enjoyment even in circumstances you’re used to thinking of as unpleasant, like feeling hungry or getting organized.

Photo by Maia C

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Compulsively Checking E-mail and Going to Bed Late: Where Unintentional Habits Come From


You may be in charge of how often you check your e-mail: it may be that you can stay away from it for days at a time, that you don’t check it on vacation, and that if you’re at a computer doing something else, you never look at it every five minutes just to see whether something new has shown up. Many of us, however, are in a different boat–if not with e-mail, then regularly going to bed later than intended (even if the last wakeful hour of the day was spent just marking time), or with watching the news every night, or with having a cup of tea every afternoon at four (I’m not looking at you, The United Kingdom; I’m just saying).

Whether we think of these kinds of behaviors as compulsions, bad habits, or routine, they have a few things in common: they seem to appear by themselves without our ever choosing them; they are often counter-productive (well, maybe not the tea); and they’re not easy to get rid of.

But these habits aren’t such a mystery, because we acquire habits in the same way whether they help us or hurt us, whether they’re desired or accidental: we repeat a behavior over and over for a reason until we naturally start doing it automatically even when we don’t have a reason.

Constantly checking e-mail is a good example: this kind of habit can easily develop when there’s important information coming through e-mail that you’re eager to see. I know that every time I’ve had a writing success (when I won the Writers of the Future contest, when my book Talk the Talk sold, etc.) or especially was hoping for a writing success (waiting for a response on a short story, waiting to hear back from a publisher about a novel) I’ve tended to check my e-mail over and over on the off chance that some time in the last five minutes, the hoped-for news had come: the book had sold, the contest was won, the agent is excited about working with me. And having a number of kinds of things like that over the years, I did this repeated checking long enough, often enough, and consistently enough that now for me, checking my e-mail is a little bit like eating: if I go too long without doing it, I start feeling antsy.

The exact same process applies to staying up late at night, or playing video games when you arrive home from work or school, or watching the news every evening regardless of whether it’s really making your life better to do so: any period where you have a powerful reason to do the thing over and over can birth a long-term habit that doesn’t need a reason. The same steps even apply to addiction in some ways, although there are also physiological factors when we’re talking about substance abuse.

Some of these (non-substance abuse) habits are neutral or helpful, others not so much. If you want to ditch a habit you never meant to pick up in the first place, the process is simple in a sense, though it takes attention, effort, and thought: you interrupt the repeated behavior long enough to weaken the habit. In order to do this, it’s helpful to find some non-habit-forming or constructive alternative, because it’s difficult not to do something you’re used to, but much easier to do something else–even if you’re not used to the something else. This is why people who are trying to quit cigarettes chew gum and why people who are trying to quit alcohol drink coffee at AA meetings.

As to whether constantly checking e-mail is one of the bad habits or one of the neutral ones–well, I would answer that, but I have to go check my e-mail.

Photo by CarbonNYC

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How to Form a Habit: It’s Like Training a Friendly Idiot


Ah, brains: so mysterious, complicated, and powerful, and yet so inclined to tell us to sit on the couch and eat doughnuts instead of doing the dishes or working out. What’s with these things, anyway?

There’s a group of neurons deep in the heart of the brain called the basal ganglia, and they’re involved in some important functions like movement and habit formation. How does the habit formation part work? Kind of a like a big, stupid, friendly guy, who’s only too willing to help but needs to be shown what to do over and over. And over. And over again. You get the idea.

So if I’m out here wanting to develop a habit of remembering someone’s name the first time it’s said by always repeating it and using a mnemonic, and if I try that once or twice, the basal ganglia–our big friend–are going to be staring at me dully, wondering exactly what I’m getting at. But if I stay aware with post-it notes or constant vigilance or a string tied around my finger, and if I keep at it, eventually he’ll get a glimmer of understanding in his eye (though it obviously the basal ganglia don’t really have eyes–that would be creepy) and try to follow along, hesitantly and with some confusion. And if I keep introducing myself to enough new people (perhaps volunteering at the membership table of a stamp collecting convention, if that’s what it takes), and remember to always say the name over silently and come up with a mnemonic, then he begins to get in the groove and really starts to learn to do what I’m doing.

But then let’s say I’m tired after the stamp collecting convention. I go to a diner for a nice tomato sandwich, and when the waitress introduces herself as Evangeline, I’m just too tired to memorize her name. Suddenly the big guy lurches to a stop. He thought I was doing the thing with the repeating and the mnemonics, and now I’m doing the thing with the tomato sandwich, which is a little too many for him. So he waits for a clue.

Then five minutes later someone comes up and says “Hey, you were at the stamp convention! Did you get a load of those Cinderellas? Man!” He introduces himself as Larry.

This is it. I’ve already blown it with Evangeline, and Larry here is my Waterloo: the only question is whether I’m the guy who won at Waterloo or the guy who lost (yeah, I know their names, but if we get bogged down in details this article is going to run 1,500 words before we’re done, and nobody wants that).

So maybe I look at Larry and silently repeat the name “Larry” to myself, then think, “You know, he’s the kind of guy who looks like he would have a lair.” (Lair-Larry: that’s my mnemonic. And don’t give me that–I never said it had to be a clever mnemonic.) In this case the big dumb guy (the basal ganglia, not Larry: Larry’s like, 5’6″, not to mention he got a 1710 on his SAT’s) smiles angelically and lumbers forward again. He understands: this is a habit he and I are trying to form, and the thing with what’s-her-name the waitress, Angelina or Emmaline or whatever, was just a glitch. As long as there are very, very few glitches and lots of Larry experiences, the basal ganglia guy will put more and more of his massive strength behind reinforcing my name-remembering habit. And if I keep that habit up every day or very nearly every day, in just 18-254 days, give or take, it should be completely locked in! Now was that so hard?

OK, it was hard–for maybe two or three months (68 days on average, according to one study). But for the rest of my life, or until I start getting old and confused and calling everyone “Josephine,” I’ll be a champion name-rememberer, and people will look at me with awe and say “Boy, I wish I could remember names like that. I guess some people can just naturally do it and some people can’t.”

And even while I’m smacking my forehead in dismay at such people, the big dumb guy is happily shoving their names into long-term memory for me, unconfused and at peace.

Photo by Olivander

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