My current emphasis: how to make good habits and break bad ones (really)

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“Habit Change Is Easiest When People Move House or Undergo Some Life Transition.”

wendywoodHabits interview: Wendy Wood.

I was very pleased to get the chance to interview Professor and Vice Dean Wendy Wood, because she’s one of the top experts in the field of habits, and has done much of the most interesting research in the area.

For instance, it was her research that showed that about people repeat about 40% of their activities almost daily — and usually in the same place.

I read a lot of her work as I was writing Better Than Before, my book about how we change habits. (To hear when it goes on sale, sign up here.)

I was very curious to hear more about Wendy’s ideas about habits, and how she thinks about them in the context of her own life.

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research on the subject of habits. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded?

Wendy: Habits are a simple, basic form of learning. Even rats form habits.  It’s amazing that this simple form of learning underlies so many of our daily activities.

People repeat about 40% of their activities almost daily and usually in the same location (shown in a  study I conducted at Texas A&M Univ–not Duke, as often reported). Given this high level of repetition, people easily form habits for daily activities.

Once habits form, the habitual response comes to mind automatically when you are in the familiar context.  For me, walking into my kitchen first thing in the morning brings to mind making coffee. And I usually just go ahead and make it without asking myself whether I particularly want to drink coffee this morning. It’s just my habit to do so, and I find myself doing before thinking—that’s the hallmark of habit.

What aspects of habits would be most helpful for people to understand?

Habits develop slowly, across many experiences. So they don’t shift easily when people change their goals and preferences. This means that we can actually be of two minds about something.  Your habitual mind might suggest one activity whereas your preferences and goals might suggest another.

The two minds were evident in a study I conducted with people at a movie cinema. We gave some cinema-goers stale, week-old popcorn and others fresh popcorn. And no surprise, people reported really disliking the stale popcorn. But those who had a habit to eat popcorn at the cinema ate the stale popcorn anyway. It was as if, even though they told us they didn’t like it, they were propelled by the cues of being at the cinema to keep eating it. People without popcorn-eating habits didn’t eat the stale popcorn, only the fresh.

Usually, our habits and our preferences are more in line than with the cinema study. But this study is important because it reveals the two minds problem. Habit learning (in that case, a cinema-popcorn habit) doesn’t integrate easily with our current goals and plans (disliking the stale popcorn).

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Ah, there’s the rub. With repetition, action tendencies become stronger.  The more often you drive to work the same way, the stronger your habit to drive that particular route. When habits are really strong, then you are even repeat them when you don’t intend to. On a Saturday, when not thinking about what you are doing, you might find yourself inadvertently taking the route to work when you meant to go to the store.

Feelings, however, become weaker with repetition. So, the more often you eat ice cream, the less pleasure you get from eating it.  Philosophers refer to this as the difference between the “active” and “passive” components of habit. With repetition, our action tendencies get stronger but our feelings habituate and weaken.

The bottom line is that, if you really enjoy something, you don’t want to repeat it in a routine way so that it becomes a habit. You lose the pleasure in the experience. Instead, you want to make habitual the necessities in life….that is, regular exercise, a healthy diet, saving money and paying the bills, and working. The pleasures in life should be savored and not performed in a habitual way…..including time with family, a great glass of wine, and the sunset over the ocean.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

Oh, jeez, we all have bad habits. These are habits that are inconsistent with our goals. Some bad habits were probably learned unintentionally, and others may have even been intended at one point, but no longer fit with our current goals and plans.

Many habits are tough to change. They become really resistant when they get tied up with physiological addictions such as smoking, drinking, and taking drugs. But even habits that are not addictive are tough to change. When you are in the context in which you performed the habit in the past, that behavior automatically comes to mind. You may have decided to change that behavior. Not to do it anymore. But it takes energy to inhibit the habit in mind and to choose to do something new. Often, we don’t have the willpower to make these decisions, and it’s just easier to act habitually.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

Yes, I’ve had several points in my life when I was overweight, especially after both of my pregnancies. Me at 200 lbs was not fun. But I was fortunate to be able to lose that baby weight. That experience was partly how I got interested in habits. In the U.S., most of us know what we should do to be healthy—exercise, eat lots of fruit and veg, and avoid sweets and fried foods. But few of us do this. I started to believe that researchers are focusing on the wrong thing when trying to get people healthy (think, the “Strive for 5” health campaign). Psychologists are very good at changing people’s beliefs—or at changing behaviors for a short period of time. Many people can lose weight briefly, but longer-term change is tough. That’s been the focus of much of my research—to figure out why habits are so tough to change and to identify strategies to change them.

One insight has to do with performance contexts. Habits are activated automatically by context cues. So, change the context. We find that habit change is easiest when people move house or undergo some other life transition that changes the contexts in which they live (e.g., start a new job, get married). This is perhaps why people often report that they started a new, healthy behavior when on vacation. Away from familiar cues to bad habits, people are freed to act in new ways. Beware, though, that changing everyday contexts also removes cues to good habits. And in my research, people who were exercising habitually didn’t continue to do so after they moved and the cues to exercise changed.

People also can take charge of some of the context cues in their personal environments. For example, many people keep cookies, candy, and chips on their kitchen counter. Removing these cues to eating can help to stop habitual snacking. In restaurants, even something as simple as moving desserts to the end of a cafeteria line can reduce people’s consumption of sweets. Obesity is really an environmental problem.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

Yes, as described above, out of familiar everyday contexts, people are freed-up to act in new, nonhabitual ways.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I had a speech teacher once who said she tried to do everything in a new way each day. She claimed to walk to school a new way, eat different things for lunch every day—you get the idea. To me, it sounded exhausting. She was clearly resisting habit formation, or at least the habituation of feeling that comes with repeating activities.

To me, habit formation is beneficial. Through habits, I pay my bills and I write for a couple hours every morning. I do those things automatically. They aren’t a struggle and so don’t take too much energy and decision making. Instead, I want to think about the activities that are important to me, especially spending time with my husband and sons.

This idea of doing some things habitually and others in a more thoughtful way follows from the two minds problem I mentioned above. We all have a habitual mind (even my old speech teacher, although she fought it). Might as well make it work for you—it is reliable at doing the same thing as in the past. And some tasks don’t require more than this. Of course, when I say that my writing is habitual, it’s really making time to write that is habitual. The writing itself requires effort and thought. But if you have a habit to write at a certain time every day or to write a certain amount every day, then you don’t have to struggle to make yourself do it.

I'm just about finished writing my next book, Better Than Before, about how we can make and break our habits. If you’d like to hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.

Are You a “People-Pleaser?” What Do You Feel Obliged To Do?

blue-number-four-mdI posted yesterday about “Do you resist when anyone asks or tell you what to do?”, about some questions I had about the Rebel Tendency, as part of the Four Tendencies framework I’ve created.

The  Four Tendencies are part of what I discuss in Better Than Before, my book on habit change.

A key piece of self-knowledge — which is crucial to habit change — is “What is your ‘Tendency’?”  That is: How do you respond to expectations?

-outer expectations (meet a deadline, perform a “request” from a sweetheart, follow traffic regulations)

-inner expectations (write a novel in your free time, keep a New Year’s resolution, start flossing)

Your response to expectations may sound slightly obscure, but it turns out to be very, very important.

In a nutshell:

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations (I’m an Upholder, 100%)
  • Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense (my husband is a Questioner), so they make everything an inner expectation
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves (they often describe themselves as “people-pleasers”)
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike

 

I gave a talk at LinkedIn about the Four Tendencies, so if you’d like to see me discuss each category in  a video, you can watch: for Upholders, watch here; Questioners, here; Obligers, here, and Rebels, here.

I’m always trying to deepen my understanding of how they play out. So this week, I’m going to pose some questions. Yesterday, I focused on Rebels.

Today’s questions relate to the Obliger Tendency.

Obligers, and Obliger-observers, I’m curious: what do you feel obliged to do? It seems to me that Obligers vary tremendously in their standards. They often describe themselves as “people-pleasers” but some do much more to please than others!

Some Obligers seem to feel obliged to do all sorts of things — perhaps even things that no one is actually expecting from them. “I have to make a homemade dessert for the bake sale.” “I can’t go to sleep with dirty dishes in the sink, because someone might see.” “I have to do the yard work myself.” They may exhaust themselves meeting obligations for others — and feel burned out, and also resentful, because they don’t meet their expectations for themselves.

Other Obligers seem to feel obliged only to do things if they’ll actually get in some kind of trouble if they don’t. “I won’t work on the report until my boss comes looking for it.” “I won’t clean up the kitchen unless someone is coming over.”

Another variety: I have a friend who is an Obliger, and very ethical. She feels obligated to anything that she considers morally necessary. So  she feels obliged to be on time, because that shows respect for others, which is morally worthy, but she feels no obligation to go to the gym. I said, “What about your duty to yourself?” (That’s the Upholder perspective.) She just waved her hand and said, “Meh.”

Note: For Obligers to meet expectations for themselves, they need to create systems of external accountability. This is key! Essential! And makes an enormous difference.

What do you think? Does this ring true? What spectrum of Obliger behavior have you noticed or experienced?

If you want to know when Better Than Before goes on sale — and of course you do — sign up here.

Do You Resist When Anyone Asks or Tells You To Do Something?

ColumnIt may have been a while since I posted on the Four Tendencies, but have no doubt, I’m still obsessed with this subject.

I came up with the  Four Tendencies framework as part of my work on Better Than Before, my book on habit change.

There, I reveal the secret of habit formation. Really. Ready to hear the mystery solved? To change our habits, we first have to figure out ourselves.

Many experts suggest a magical, one-size-fits-all solution, but we all know from experience, that alas, such an answer doesn’t exist. We have to shape our habits to suit ourselves.

And in that quest, a key piece of self-knowledge is “What is your ‘Tendency’?”  That is: How do you respond to expectations?

-outer expectations (meet a deadline, perform a “request” from a sweetheart, follow traffic regulations)

-inner expectations (write a novel in your free time, keep a New Year’s resolution, start flossing)

Your response to expectations may sound slightly obscure, but it turns out to be very, very important.

In a nutshell:

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations (I’m an Upholder, 100%)
  • Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense (my husband is a Questioner), so they make everything an inner expectation
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves (they often describe themselves as “people-pleasers”)
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike

 

I gave a talk at LinkedIn about the Four Tendencies, so if you’d like to see me discuss each category in  a video, you can watch: for Upholders, watch here; Questioners, here; Obligers, here, and Rebels, here.

I’m always trying to deepen my understanding of how they play out. So this week, I’m going to pose some questions.

Today’s questions relate to the Rebel Tendency.

Rebels resist when someone asks or tells them to do something. They want to do their own thing, in their own way.

My question for Rebels and Rebel-observers: Do Rebels feel okay about telling other people what to do?

My sense is that they’re comfortable imposing their own expectations on other people — even beyond the imposition that comes when they refuse to do what others expect.

As Samuel Johnson noted, with his usual dry wit, “It has been observed that they who most loudly clamour for liberty do not most liberally grant it.”

If you’re a Rebel, if you feel like answering, I’d love to know what you think. How do you feel about imposing expectations on others? If you know a Rebel well, what have you observed?

And here’s a follow-up question: How do you feel about meeting expectations from people who work for you? Does it seem different when you’re meeting an expectation from someone who is essentially acting as an extension of yourself?

And what about meeting the expectations of your children? How does that work?

Another question for Rebels — do you enjoy helping other people, or teaching other people? Is this something you often choose to do?

Bonus question: I’d love examples from literature, movies, TV, plays, historical figures, of people who are Rebels.  For instance, read how novelist John Gardner described himself:

I hate to obey speed laws. I hate to park where it says you have to park. I hate to have to be someplace on time. And in fact I often don’t do those things I know I should do, which of course fills me with uneasiness and guilt. Every time you break the law you pay, and every time you obey the law you pay. That compulsion not to do what people tell me, to avoid tic repetitions, makes me constantly keep pushing the edges. It makes me change places of living, or change my life in one way or another, which often makes me very unhappy. I wish I could just settle down. I keep promising myself that really soon now I’m going to get this little farm or maybe house and take care of it, never move again. But I’ll probably never do it.

Or any other random observations abut Rebels or the Four Tendencies? What have you observed? Does this framework ring true for you? Tomorrow, questions about and for Obligers.

If you want to know when Better Than Before goes on sale — and of course you do — sign up here.

Can a Vine Behave like an Olive Tree? No.

epictetusA vine cannot behave olively, nor an olive tree vinely—it is impossible, inconceivable. No more can a human being wholly efface his native disposition.

–Epictetus, Discourses, 2.20.18

This is what has struck me most in my study of habits. We can’t change our fundamental nature. We have to form the habits that work for us.

An Owl shouldn’t bother trying to form the habit of getting up early to exercise. A Moderator shouldn’t bother trying to form the habit of giving up sugar. A Sprinter shouldn’t both trying to form the habit of doing a little work each day, well before a deadline.

Those are great habits for Larks, Abstainers, and Marathoners. But there’s no magic, one-size-fits-all-solution for habits. Unfortunately.

An olive tree can’t act like a vine, and an Obliger won’t form habits the way that an Upholder will.

When we know ourselves, and figure out how to shape our habits to suit our native disposition–that’s when we succeed.

How about you? Have you ever found it much easier to form a habit when you changed your approach to be better suited to your nature? Your love (or dislike) of competition? Your love (or dislike) of spare decoration? Your love (or dislike) of bold changes?

You can pre-order my book about habit change, Better Than Before, here–but don’t worry, that’s not the actual cover of the book. Pre-orders really help a book, so if you’re inclined to buy it, I really appreciate a pre-order.

Video: For Habits, the Strategy of Abstaining, or, How To Be Free From French Fries.

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the various strategies that we can use for habit-formation.

Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative. My forthcoming book, Better Than Before, describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits. To hear when it goes on sale, sign up here.

Today, I’m talking about the Strategy of Abstaining. This is one of my favorite strategies — but then, I’m a 100%, total Abstainer.

Abstainers find it far easier to give something up altogether than to indulge moderately. If they try to be moderate, they exhaust themselves debating, “Today, tomorrow?” “Does this time ‘count’?” “Don’t I deserve this?” etc. Once they’ve decided something is off-limits, they don’t think about it anymore.

Moderators, by contrast, feel trapped and rebellious if they try to abstain. They do better when they indulge sometimes, or a little bit.

 

If you’re having trouble figuring out your category, take this quiz.

Abstaining may sound rigid and hard, but for Abstainers, it’s easier than trying to be moderate

I have to tell this story about my sister the sage again, because I love it so much.

When I was identifying the concepts of “abstainers” and “moderators,” my sister was my model moderator. For instance, her weakness is French fries, and she told me that she couldn’t give up French fries, but she would eat only half an order, share an order with her husband, not order fries every time she went out to dinner, etc. Those are moderator strategies.

But to my astonishment, a few months ago, she told me, “You know what? I’m actually an abstainer. It turns out that it’s just easier to give something up altogether. “

But I know something else about my sister. While I find it easy to say “No,” “Stop,” or “Never” to myself, my sister is a person–and many people are like this–who does much better with positive resolutions. (I posted about this difference in Are you a “yes” resolver or a “no” resolver?) So I asked her how she was handling that issue. Because, after all, abstaining means saying “no.”

My sister is so brilliant with words.

She said to me, “You’re right, I can’t tell myself a negative. I have to make this a positive thing. So I tell myself, “Now I’m free from French fries.”

Free from French fries!

That’s exactly how abstaining feels to me. I’m free from decision-making, free from internal debate, free from guilt or anxiety.  That Halloween candy, that bread basket, that cookie plate at the meeting…they don’t tempt or distract me. It’s a Secret of Adulthood for Habits: I give myself limits to give myself freedom.

But the Strategy of Abstaining doesn’t work for Moderators.

Know yourself! It would be so nice if a magic, one-size-fits-all solution existed for habits. But there’s no single correct approach. To change your habits, you have to figure out yourself.

How about you? Are you an Abstainer or a Moderator? How has that influenced how you’ve tackled your habits?