Ever wondered why it’s so hard to leave old habits behind? Social Psychologist, Dr. Wendy Wood, is here to help us understand how habits guide our behavior & why they’re so difficult to break.

Listen to the episode or read the article to learn the three simple things you can do to create good habits!

3 surprisingly simple things to create good habits

This conversation first aired in early 2020 & so much has changed since then. I know some of you are trying to create new, positive, supportive behaviors or break the ones that don’t serve you anymore. So I’m bringing back this episode to remind you of these 3 incredibly simple things you can do to make a difference.

“If you want to change, you need to be doing the same thing repeatedly in the same circumstances or context”.

Dr. Wendy Wood
meet guest & social psychologist: dr. wendy wood

Wendy started off studying how people’s attitudes and beliefs change. It quickly became clear that the more interesting question was about why it’s so easy to make initial changes, but it’s so hard to get them to stick.

This question of persistence really grabbed her attention. We tend to blame ourselves for lacking willpower and motivation, which turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy when those two things alone don’t get us the results we’re after.

In science, we’ve gotten to a place where we understand behavior change, but a lot of the insight we have isn’t available in the popular press.

She wanted to convey the science behind behavior change in her book, Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes that Stick. The basic premise of her book is that our minds are not one unified whole. The parts of you that decide to change for the better are not the same neural circuits involved in sticking with a behavior.

the role of persistence & practice

We persist in different ways than we start. You can be very serious about change and actually how to set about changing a behavior, but not succeed simply because you have not set up what’s needed for persistence.

There are parts of us that make decisions, sometimes associated with prefrontal areas of our brains and something psychologists call executive control – which is responsible for how we make decisions, plan, and make sense out of our world in a conscious, aware way.

There are other neural circuits that exist and take over after we’ve repeated a behavior often enough so that it starts to become part of our habit memory. We also need to be doing this in the same circumstances or context, in the same location, at the same time, or maybe part of your daily routine.

A characteristic of a habit is doing the same thing whether you want to or whether it’s the best thing for you at that time, simply because you’ve practiced it in the past.

understanding your brain when it comes to behavior change

Really there are three parts: the part that wants to change, the part that’s motivated to change, and then this third part that is the implementation of change.

Motivation and knowledge are both very important, but that’s typically the only part of behavior change that gets talked about in the general media. But there’s that third part that is helping us persist and provides the infrastructure to our lives. We’re not aware of that third part, but it’s really important if you want to stick with change.

Wendy calls this part, “the habit self”. In the ideal world, our habits would be completely in line with our motives and our aware self because then our habits would be supporting what we want to do.

We tend to be aware of the habits that aren’t working for us (eating habits, phone use, etc.), but the ones that are working for us are just often invisible.

3 surprisingly simple things you can do to create good habits

1 | Repetition

In order to change behavior and form a new habit, you need to repeat the behavior often enough so that it becomes part of your habit memory. Habit memories store only the most important information in your life, what you really don’t ever want to forget.

It takes a lot of repetition before that memory system starts to pick up information.

Most of what happens around us changes, but it’s the consistent things that our habit memories encode. You want to try to target the behavior the same way every time.

For example, let’s say you want to go to the gym a couple of times a week – if you go in the morning one day, at night another, and then you squeeze it in during a break at work another day, that’s may not be the kind of consistency that’s going to help you to build that into a habit.

2 | Stability

You want it to be part of a stable context, maybe as part of your daily routine.

3 | Reward

You have to like what you’re doing.

Habits form when our brain releases dopamine, a neurochemical that helps habit memories form. It ties together what you did, in what context, to get a reward.

If you repeat a behavior that you like, often enough and in a stable context – then you just have to see that context and the behavior comes to mind. This is what we call habit-automaticity.

We often believe that if we were good enough people with good enough self-control, that we could get ourselves to do it. But that’s not how our minds work. Part of making behavior changes stick is shifting your mindset toward the idea that you don’t need to rely on discipline, willpower, or motivation.

“We underestimate the importance of routines”.

Dr. Wendy Wood
real life example: making it work with exercise

Robyn is trying to develop an after-dinner workout routine. It’s not a long workout, it’s something she really loves, and she feels good when she’s done. But what happens after dinner is that she usually sits on the couch to read or manage social media (which comes with a lot of dopamine). If she can start working out, though, everything is great.

Wendy offers this advice & reminders for making this habit stick:

  • Choose a better time: Maybe after dinner isn’t the best time to exercise. Make it easy on yourself and don’t put it at a time that’s challenging.
  • Make it easier: You have to make it easy for yourself to do something. For example, the further we travel to get to the gym, the less frequently we are likely to go.
  • Use your environment to your advantage: Our environments can put friction on behaviors by making them more difficult, but environment can also reduce friction by making them easier. Distance to the gym adds friction that stops people from going.

For Robyn’s evening exercise routine, there is something about it that is putting friction on starting the exercise routine. One of the reasons might be that her environment is set up for a calmer after-dinner routine. If the living room was set up, instead, to support working out, it might be much easier to start.

There are things you can do to make it more difficult to continue falling into the behavior you want to change, and therefore easier to change the behavior.

Anything new is hard, especially in the early stages. Creating supports and putting structure in place is essential.

what does it really mean to be healthy?

“I think about it in terms of process and I think about it in terms of what are you doing on a regular basis to make sure that you’re eating right, you’re getting enough exercise, you’re not stressed, you’re getting enough sleep. I think about it in terms of behavior, in terms of lifestyle…. Health is your daily behaviors, it’s your habits”. 

Dr. Wendy Wood
guest bio

Dr. Wendy Wood is a social psychologist whose research addresses the way that habits guide behavior and why they’re so difficult to break. Dr. Wood is the Provost Professor of Psychology and Business at USC and the author of a brand-new book, Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick.

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Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick

Hear more from Wendy on LinkedIn and Twitter

other feel good episodes you’ll love

How to Break the Anxiety Habit with Dr. Jud Brewer

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Improve Your Memory with These Simple Habits with Lisa Genova

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