A Simple Guide to Sustainable Habit Change
In the words of the musician and entrepreneur Derek Sivers, when it comes to changing habits and achieving success, “if more information was the answer, then we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.”
Most people don’t have a knowledge problem. It’s not enough to know what you need to do.
You need to know how to make good behaviors stick.
This article won’t tell you which habits to kick and which to keep - that’s up to you. Instead, we’ll break down a simple, powerful principle of behavior change that you can apply to your life however you see fit.
When trying to change habits, most people make one crucial mistake. It goes like this: someone trying to eat better will commit to cutting out chips and chocolate. Someone trying to spend less time on screens will commit to abstaining from social media.
The common theme here is the removal of a negative behavior, rather than the addition of a positive one. Of course, subtracting the negative is one half of the equation, but if your strategy ends there, you’re doomed to fail. While this approach can work for the most disciplined among us, it is misguided for two reasons.
First, psychological research suggests that telling ourselves to avoid something only makes us focus on it more. This idea, called “ironic process theory,” was developed from studies in which researchers asked people to verbalize their stream of consciousness (whatever thoughts popped into their head) in one of two conditions. People in group one were told to verbalize their thoughts and ring a bell whenever they thought of a white bear.
People in group two were given the same instructions but were explicitly told not to think of a white bear. When researchers tallied the results, group two rang the bell significantly more often. Experts theorize that once we’re told that a thought or behavior is forbidden, our brain constantly checks in to ensure it hasn’t come up which – ironically – makes it harder to ignore. This is why when you commit to never eating bread, suddenly bread is all you can think about!
Second, our brains have a specific circuit called the mesolimbic pathway which is wired to give us feel-good hits of positive emotion (in the form of a chemical called dopamine) when we make progress towards a meaningful goal. We more effectively leverage this system when moving towards something positive than when moving away from something negative.
If your goal is to eat healthier, don’t commit to “avoiding junk food” every night. Instead, commit to the positive habit of eating one serving of vegetables, or another healthy option with each meal. Though the difference seems subtle, you’ll still probably end up eating less junk food, but with less psychological toil.
If your goal is to spend less time mindlessly scrolling social media apps before bed, don’t commit to abstaining from it altogether. Instead, brainstorm a positive habit you can adopt that will have the same effect. Commit, for example, to reading a few pages of a good book every night before bed. You’ll be on your phone less as a by-product.
If you want to change a habit, don’t just subtract the negative. Add the positive, and you’ll be much more likely to succeed.