Perhaps you’ve had the experience of setting goals only to lose sight of them in the rush of daily life, then realize later that you’ve made little progress. When it comes to certain kinds of goals—ones involving health or personal improvement, for example—that’s pretty common. And it corresponds with what science has revealed about what it takes to change behavior.
Humans are creatures of habit. Most of your actions are unconscious and automatic, the result of repetition and routine. That’s good in many ways. It’s a survival mechanism that helps your brain work efficiently as you navigate the hundreds of choices you face every day. You stop at red lights and go when they turn green. You have coffee in the morning and put on shoes before you go outside. You brush your teeth before you go to bed. If you thought consciously about every action you took during the day, you’d be exhausted. You’d also get a lot less done.
The downside of habits comes when you settle into patterns of unhealthy or unproductive behavior. That might be a sedentary lifestyle without enough physical activity or eating habits that are bad for your health. It might be spending habits that push you deeper into debt. It might be patterns of interaction that lead to arguments.
Willpower isn’t always enough. Willpower takes conscious effort. It relies on rational, future-oriented thought to counter or suppress urges from a more primitive part of your brain. And those urges can be powerful. “I want that cookie now,” is a primitive urge, and responding to it brings an immediate reward. “If I eat the cookie, I won’t lose weight, and I’ll feel bad later,” is a rational thought—the application of willpower—and acting on it brings a far less tangible reward in the future.
The human brain tends to overvalue immediate rewards and undervalue future benefits. So, when willpower and your immediate wants face off in a series of matchups, willpower tends to weaken and give in.
To break the cycle of unwanted and unhealthy behaviors—your bad habits—you need to overwrite them with new patterns of unconscious thought—new habits—that advance you toward your goals.
How to harness the power of habits to reach your goals:
- Start with a vision
- Commit to your goal
- Take small steps toward your goal
- Understand what triggers your habits
- Make the new habit attractive and enjoyable
- Make the new habit easy
- Expect and plan for lapses
- Keep going
Behavioral Health Systems is the parent company of Safety First. BHS offers Mental Health and Substance Abuse benefits to employers along with Employee Assistance Programs.