Time for a “Fresh Start”?

For many people, this week is the last week of summer vacation – next week back to work! For others (including me), this year’s summer vacation is coming up soon, or may be in full swing already!

Summer vacation time creates a great opportunity to relax and reflect on our lives a bit, to reflect on our habits and create new commitments to change as we switch speed from work>vacation >work again:

  • The positive habits that we want to live by but that somehow elude us,
  • The negative habits we need to quit but that’s so hard,
  • The habits that we don’t know yet that we need, to live our purposeful lives

Professor Katy Milkman, in her recent book How to change, recommends “fresh starts” as one of several techniques to change habits, achieve lasting change, and what better time for a fresh start than the return to work after a long, refreshing summer vacation?

So what exactly is a habit?

Wikipedia describes a habit as: “a routine of behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously”. The same Wikipedia article continues: “When behaviors are repeated in a consistent context, there is an incremental increase in the link between the context and the action. This increases the automaticity of the behavior in that context. Features of an automatic behavior are all or some of: efficiency; lack of awareness; unintentionality; and uncontrollability.

Psychologist Wendy Wood, in her book “Good Habits, Bad Habits” tells us that “Our nonconscious selves are forming habits that enable us to easily repeat what we have done in the past. We have little conscious experience of forming a habit or acting out of habit. We do not control our habits in the same way as we do our conscious decisions. This is the under-the-surface, hidden nature of habit.”.

So, in summary, habits are formed as a consequence of repeated behaviour that then create mental shortcuts in our brain. Wendy Wood describes these shortcuts as examples of “procedural memory” along with learning a second language, riding a bicycle. “It’s such an important repository of information that only the most frequently repeated patterns get stored like this. It functions somewhat separately from other memory systems, and the specific information encoded isn’t accessible to consciousness. This kind of cognitive coding is a sort of mental equivalent of admin-only files on your computer. Your computer’s best functioning relies on you not naively messing around in its most fundamental code, which it stashes away behind several layers of obfuscation. This is why we don’t know much about our habits. The information we learn as a habit is to some extent separated from other neural regions.”

In his book “Atomic Habits: Tiny changes, remarkable results”, author James Clear puts a strong case for tweaking your habits. He argues that a 1% improvement in daily habits results in a “compound interest” of 37% in one year. He goes on to describe the positive or negative impact that this compounding has on your life:

Positive compounding

  • Productivity compounds. Accomplishing one extra task is a small feat on any given day, but it counts for a lot over an entire career. The effect of automating an old task or mastering a new skill can be even greater. The more tasks you can handle without thinking, the more your brain is free to focus on other areas.
  • Knowledge compounds. Learning one new idea won’t make you a genius, but a commitment to lifelong learning can be transformative. Furthermore, each book you read not only teaches you something new but also opens up different ways of thinking about old ideas. As Warren Buffett says, “That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest.”
  • Relationships compound. People reflect your behavior back to you. The more you help others, the more others want to help you. Being a little bit nicer in each interaction can result in a network of broad and strong connections over time.

Negative Compounding

  • Stress compounds. The frustration of a traffic jam. The weight of parenting responsibilities. The worry of making ends meet. The strain of slightly high blood pressure. By themselves, these common causes of stress are manageable. But when they persist for years, little stresses compound into serious health issues.
  • Negative thoughts compound. The more you think of yourself as worthless, stupid, or ugly, the more you condition yourself to interpret life that way. You get trapped in a thought loop. The same is true for how you think about others. Once you fall into the habit of seeing people as angry, unjust, or selfish, you see those kind of people everywhere.
  • Outrage compounds. Riots, protests, and mass movements are rarely the result of a single event. Instead, a long series of microaggressions and daily aggravations slowly multiply until one event tips the scales and outrage spreads like wildfire.”

James Clear. “Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones.”

OK, so now we know what a habit is and a bit about why they are important to our lives, but how to change habits?

According to the research from James Clear, the process of a habit can be seen as 4 steps: cue, craving, response, reward.

  • The cue is the trigger that you brain receives that initiates the habit.
  • The craving is the motivation or desire for something in response to the cue. It is the outcome of the habit that you desire. Some examples by James Clear “You do not crave smoking a cigarette, you crave the feeling of relief it provides. You are not motivated by brushing your teeth but rather by the feeling of a clean mouth”.
  • The response is the habitual behaviour itself that you may carry out depending on your will to do it
  • The reward is the end goal of the habit, to satisfy the craving. The reward is also the reinforcer for the habit – “feelings of pleasure and disappointment are part of the feedback mechanism that helps your brain distinguish useful actions from useless ones. Rewards close the feedback loop and complete the habit cycle.” James Clear. “Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones.”

These 4 steps can be seen as a cycle – and depending on how you perceive the habit (is it bad or good), this can be seen as either a vicious or virtuous cycle. If you want to build a new, good habit, you can focus on this 4-step cycle to reinforce each of the steps. Similarly, if you want to break an existing bad habit, you can focus on these 4 steps to minímise each step:

Building a good habit

Cue: Make it obvious

Craving: Make it attractive

Response: Make it easy

Reward: Make it satisfying

Breaking a bad habit

Cue: Make it invisible

Craving: Make it unattractive

Response: Make it difficult

Reward: Make it unsatisfying

Wendy Wood offers a similar approach, but with three steps:

  • Context – The context of the habit – the environment and what’s going on that triggers the need for a particular habit (cue and craving). “…the restraining forces, the driving forces, and the pitfalls of your introspection illusion.” Wendy Wood. “Good Habits, Bad Habits.”.
  • Repetition – Designing the actions for the new habit (response), and then committing to these actions for long enough that it becomes a habit (around 40 repetitions, according to Wendy Wood’s research).
  • Reward – This is the secret spice for a new habit – to turn the pain of repetition and change into something that delivers something that you desire, even if small. “Rewards, to have a role in habit formation, have to be bigger and better than what you would normally experience. That’s likely going to take some forethought and creativity. It might require some deliberation on your part.” Wendy Wood. “Good Habits, Bad Habits.”. Rewards can be intrinsic or extrinsic to the behaviour of the habit. Intrinsic rewards are the most effective to reinforce a behaviour, “This could be the feeling of pleasure you get when you read an engaging story to your kids and see their enjoyment; or maybe the warm glow of generosity you experience when doing a good deed, like volunteering at the soup kitchen.” Wendy Wood. “Good Habits, Bad Habits.”. Extrinsic rewards are rewards you in a hedonistic way, for example, a treat, an hour on Netflix, a new pair of shoes.

Tips to overcome change resistance

Back to Katy Milkman. In her book How to change, she builds on the work of James Clear and others, and provides a set of research-based, practical tips to facilitate change:

  • “Fresh starts” are times in your life that you could consider a new life chapter – such as a birthday milestone, a new job or home, a new year, or even the start of a new month. Katy’s research advises “Fresh starts increase your motivation to change because they give you either a real clean slate or the impression of one; they relegate your failures more cleanly to the past; and they boost your optimism about the future. They can also disrupt bad habits and lead you to think bigger picture about your life.” The Purposeful Life Journal is naturally designed for a “fresh start” each new month.
  • ·“Temptation bundling” is a technique where you engage in something you enjoy while conducting your new habit. In Katy’s words “Temptation bundling entails allowing yourself to engage in a guilty pleasure (such as binge-watching TV) only when pursuing a virtuous or valuable activity”. – for example, in my case, I watch Netflix while cycling on my indoor cycling machine. She goes on to say “Temptation bundling solves two problems at once. It can help reduce overindulgence in temptations and increase time spent on activities that serve your long-term goals”.
  • “Commitment devices” can be used to overcome procrastination by openly committing to something that you will do if you fail to commit to the change. “Present bias often causes us to procrastinate on tasks that serve our long-term goals. An effective solution to this problem is to anticipate temptation and create constraints (“commitment devices”) that disrupt this cycle. Whenever you do something that reduces your own freedoms in the service of a greater goal, you’re using a commitment device. Cash commitment devices are a versatile form of commitment device. They allow you to create a financial incentive to meet your goal by letting you put money on the line that you’ll forfeit if you don’t succeed. Public pledges are a form of “soft” commitment that increase the psychological cost of failing to meet your goals.
  • “Timely reminders” can help overcome forgetting. These could also include cue-based reminders, such as remembering to floss after you have brushed your teeth. “Timely reminders, which prompt you to do something right before you’re meant to do it, can effectively combat forgetting. Reminders that aren’t as timely have far smaller benefits. Forming cue-based plans is another way to combat forgetting. These plans link a plan of action with a cue and take the form “When ___ happens, I’ll do ___.” Cues can be anything that triggers your memory, from a specific time or location to an object you expect to encounter.”
  • “Selecting defaults” can combat laziness, making it easier to complete the desired action. “Laziness, or the tendency to follow the path of least resistance, can stand in the way of change. A default is the outcome you’ll get if you don’t actively choose another option (such as the standard factory settings that come with a newcomputer). If you select defaults wisely (say, setting your browser’s homepage to your work email instead of Facebook), you can turn laziness into an asset that facilitates change (say, wasting less time on social media). Habits are like default settings for our behavior. They put good behavior on autopilot. The more you repeat an action in familiar circumstances and receive some reward (be it praise, relief, pleasure, or cold hard cash), the more habitual and automatic your reactions become in those situations”
  • “Emergency passes” can be used to help you stay confident and on track with a plan. “Set ambitious goals (say, exercising every day) but allow yourself a limited number of emergency passes when you slip up (say, two per week). That strategy can help you stay confident and on track even when you face the occasional, inevitable setback”

So how about it? What change can you make in your life with this summer Fresh Start opportunity?