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The psychology behind creating habits

Here, we explain how habits work and provide tips for sticking the good ones.

Woman standing on bed with breakfast, laptop, book, diary, phone and text books.

For many, January is a time of new beginnings and setting goals for the year ahead.

However, despite all the best intentions, we all know how easy it is for ‘new year, new you’ resolutions to fall by the wayside come February.

Whether it’s exercising more, stopping smoking, or reigning in spending, many resolutions require bad habits to be beaten and positive ones formed. And interestingly, research in the Journal of Clinical Psychology shows people are ten times more likely to achieve their goals and have new habits stick if they make a concrete resolution, compared with just thinking about making a change. So how exactly do habits work?

The ‘habit loop’

Research has identified a three-step loop the brain goes through when creating a habit, involving first a cue, followed by an action and finally a reward. Charles Duhigg – author of The Power of Habit — explains the three steps as follows:

  1. The ‘cue’ or ‘trigger’ tells your brain to switch into ‘habit mode’. The cue can be anything from a person, place, or time of day.
  2. The ‘action’ is simply the act of doing that particular ‘thing’ which has become routine.
  3. The ‘reward’ is the good feeling which follows after the habit is carried out, which helps to further engrain the habit.

Put in practice, a cue might be you watching TV on the couch at the end of the day, the routine might be eating a block of chocolate while you sit there, and the reward is that you feel relaxed before bed.

If you set a goal to lose weight, you’ll need to change the routine of eating chocolate in front of the TV every night, and will therefore need a new pre-bedtime routine to relax. This could be reading a book, having a relaxing bath or chatting to a friend. Importantly, the reward doesn’t change – in this example, you can still feel relaxed before going to bed by doing any of these alternate activities. If you want your new year’s resolutions to succeed, you need to look at your routines and set some goals.

Here are our tips for setting achievable goals and ensuring your new ‘good habits’ stick:

1. Set both short and long-term goals

A short term goal might be to save extra money every week, but a long term goal would be to pay cash for a holiday at the end of the year.

2. Write SMART goals

Which are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-based.

3. Be realistic

People often predict that change will be quicker and easier than is possible, however research shows it actually takes an average 66 days to form a new habit.

4. Write down your results and share them with a friend

One study about goal achievement indicated that people who wrote down their goals and shared a weekly update with a friend were 33% more successful in achieving their goals.

5. Set yourself up for success

For example, if you want to exercise every morning, lay out what you need the night before – exercise clothes and shoes, a bottle of water and your gym pass. If you want to lose weight, block out time in your diary to prepare healthy meals and to exercise.

6. Keep track of your achievements

Reward and celebrate your success. Choose a reward that doesn’t self-sabotage, i.e. don’t eat chocolate after exercising. Pick something that makes you feel good – a massage, seeing a movie, buying a book. Rewards can also be that extra incentive when your motivation is slipping.

7. Be kind to yourself

Goals are hard to achieve. If you have a setback, don’t beat yourself up, just start again and get back on track.

To learn more about psychology and mindfulness, check out our Mind courses on School of Better.

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