The fact is, our brains need more time than we would like in order to turn a new behaviour into something we do automatically. Our brains have two different systems: automatic and reflective, also known as fast and slow thinking. The automatic part of your brain controls your unconscious responses, drives and habits; the reflective part is your conscious beliefs, intentions and plans.
This is important to understand because, when you start a new behaviour, you will use the reflective system, which takes a lot more effort than the automatic. To successfully maintain this change, you need to repeat it enough times that it becomes a habit and part of this automatic system. This means you won’t need to rely on remembering to do it and keeping your motivation levels high. It works like a cognitive cruise control – you don’t have to think about doing it.
Here are some tips to help you keep going long enough to make your new behaviour automatic.
1. Keep it simple
It can be tempting to make a whole host of changes all in one go, but that puts a lot of pressure on the reflective part of your brain. This means that you’re more likely to give into temptation and slip back into your automatic habits. Instead, try to make just one change at a time, and make that as small as possible. Want to write a book? Set yourself an initial goal of just a page or two a day. Want to cut out red meat? Start by just having one vegetarian dinner a week. This makes it much easier to adjust to the change, and as that becomes second nature, you can build on it.
2. Repeat, repeat, repeat
Repetition creates shortcuts in your brain. The first time you do something, it has to create a brand new pathway in your brain to make that behaviour happen. The more times you do something, the stronger this pathway becomes. If you repeat something enough, your brain will start automatically taking you down this pathway. For example, have you ever found yourself driving a familiar route, when you meant to go a totally different way? This is that system in action, and repetition can help make your new behaviour that familiar route.
3. Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation
There are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. If you are intrinsically motivated to do something, that’s because you enjoy the activity itself and have an inbuilt drive to do it, like spending time with friends. Extrinsic motivation relies on external rewards, like studying to get good marks in an exam.
A lot of goals we set ourselves are extrinsic motivators for activities we don’t always enjoy. This is important, because you’re much more likely to stick with it if you’re intrinsically motivated. What you can try, however, is temptation bundling; combining things you love to do with the things you know you ought to do. For example, you might only listen to your favourite podcast at the gym, or treat yourself to your favourite coffee when you sit down to write. This blog about motivation and exercise explains in further detail if you’d like to find out more.
4. Focus on the process
One issue with working towards a long-term goal is that it can feel very far away, and your progress can feel insignificant in comparison. This is especially true for behaviours we don’t find intrinsically motivating. For example, it can take a long time to see the results of a new exercise regime on the scales, which can lead people to give up before the habit has a chance to form.
It’s important to focus on the process of building the new behaviour into your life, rather than just on the outcome you’re hoping for. A technique you might find useful is ‘if-then’ planning. Pick specific cues, times or places in your environment (the ‘if’) and plan how you will fit your new behaviour in (the ‘then’). This could be really simple: “If it’s Saturday, then I will write for twenty minutes”. Or more complex: “If I’m at a restaurant on a weeknight, then I will order a hot drink instead of dessert”). And reward yourself every time you stick to your plan!
5. Be compassionate with yourself
Are you kind to yourself? Do you give yourself a break if you mess up? Do you have an encouraging and gentle inner voice? If you do, that’s great because those who are more self-compassionate are more likely to achieve their goals in the long term. Self-compassion is extending kindness towards yourself in the face of failure. If you are less self-critical, you’re more likely to pick yourself up and carry on after a slip up.
Find out more about how to pick yourself up after a setback in our blog: How to bounce back from a set back.
6. Create a new identity
You can get pleasure from your new behaviour if it lines up with what you believe about yourself. As Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” By seeing yourself as the kind of person who does your new behaviour, it becomes part of your identity. That makes you more reluctant to give it up.
So, if you start to run and recognise yourself as a runner, this change in self-identity becomes really positive for keeping up your running routine. Equally, if a life event triggers your change in behaviour, you’re more likely to keep it up if it fits within your new self-identity.
Points to remember
- Make your change as simple as possible at first, and built upon it later.
- Repeat your new behaviour enough times and it will become automatic. Stick with it, it will happen.
- Think about what’s motivating you (not just the outcome) and make the process enjoyable.
- Be your own cheerleader – if you mess up, dust yourself off and begin again. Be kind to yourself and try not to be self-critical.
- Think of yourself as the type of person who does your new behaviour. So what if you’ve never been a runner before? You are now, so think of yourself as one!
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