I'm totally a sucker for movies that have strong lead characters. When the movie is finished I always find myself thinking, "How cool would it be to be like (fill in the blank)." This happens constantly after I see a Sherlock Holmes movie. I find myself splaying my fingers while sitting on my sofa. I knit my brows and glance at everything to be as observant as possible. I genuinely feel smarter and more lateral in my thinking for a period of time. But after about 2 days, I give up on this behavior and go back to my former way of thinking.
This got me wondering, is anyone else guilty of this behavior? The answer is of course, yes. I think to a degree we are all very aware that intention doesn't breed results. I'm sure that you have found yourself diving excitedly into a new way of thinking or a new habit, only to find yourself buckled by the habit not sticking? What can we do to make sure habits stick with us faster and longer? I say faster because if we can make a habit stick sooner, we can potentially experience greater successes in reaching personal goals because habits seem automatic. This automatic feeling we get from habits makes them feel less like work and more like part of who we are. And who doesn't want to feel like they can make their intentions reality?
In a study about habit formation published in BMC Psychology, the researchers confront the topic, "Exploratory study of the impact of perceived reward on habit formation." It suggests that with the same number of repetitions, a rewarded behavior may become habitual quicker than one that is not. In this longitudinal study, 118 participants of a single group were tracked with flossing and taking vitamin c tablets. To be included in the study, participants had to meet the criteria that proposed that they didn't currently have a habit relating to these two tasks. The goal of the study was to investigate habit formation not the strengthening of current habits. (You can read the study by clicking the link at the bottom of the page.)
Vitamin C Intervention
After consent and baseline recordings, a intervention and interview were given to help participants stay on track with the study. In the first 3 weeks of the study, participants were given information about the benefits of taking vitamin c supplements. Participants were asked their own perceived benefits of taking the vitamin c tablets to encourage engagement. Additionally after 4 weeks into the study, participants were asked questions to encourage efficient times and places to take the tablets.
Within 4 weeks of the study a session with a researcher that lasted 30-40 minutes was provided for the participants. Participants were given an information leaflet describing the health benefits of flossing. (Michael Scott: I made a resolution to floss, and I did it. 12:01, January first, BAM! Blood everywhere. See photo) Participants were guided about when and where they should floss and pledged to floss every night to establish commitment.
WHAT WE CAN TAKE AWAY FROM THIS
At certain points in the study, intention was associated with weaker relationship between behavior and automatic gain for both flossing and vitamin c. This could mean that good intentions alone, may do little to indicate actual behavior. But, frequency of taking both vitamin c and flossing increased after the interventions. Habit strength for these tasks improved; as measured by automaticity (how automatic a task became). And the biggest takeaway from this study, in my opinion, was behavior rewarding was associated with greater gains in habit per behavioral repetition. This may indicate that the more intrinsic value we believe we are getting from a task, may be used to help accelerate a habit.
What's in it for us? Intrinsic motivation can be a powerful tool to assist in accelerating a desired habit. Intrinsic motivation is basically the idea that you are personally benefiting, in an internal way, from the task. For example, some people stop working at high paying jobs because the work has little internal value to them. The external reward (extrinsic benefit) of money may keep them in their position for a period of time, but the internal absence of value will likely have them leaving the job in no time.
Habits can work the same way. If we can't find intrinsic value in the proposed habit, we may find ourselves internally bankrupt when it comes to accelerating a certain habit. Even if we have strong intentions to do something, we may find ourselves never actually doing the task. Have you heard the following sorts of statements?
"One day I'm going to write that novel."
"I intend to wash those dishes before bed."
"I will probably floss a little later."
"I was thinking of doing some studying."
"One day, I will learn to play a musical instrument."
"I am going to start a business one of these days."
Remember in the study that intention wasn't a long lasting correlation between how automatic a habit became or how much pleasure was perceived.
So what can we do to increase the likelihood of a habit sticking and accelerate it so it actually becomes a habit, not just a utility type of action?
GET ON TRACK WITH HABITS
In the study, intervention increased the likelihood of participants continuing the habit as well as the perceived pleasure from the task. Here are some things to do to create some interventions for yourself to get those habits on track.
Tip 1. Ask a family member or trusted friend to check in with you to see if you are continuing the habit. Most of us might not have the luxury of a research team following up with us to see if we actually did what we said we would do, but we can probably find a good friend to keep us on track. Schedule out times for them to remind you weekly, then biweekly, then monthly respectively as the habit becomes more of a habit. Ask them to hold onto the schedule and check in with you at the appropriate times.
Tip 2. Use a notepad or to do list app or calendar to remind you of something you said you would do. These can be alternatives to having someone personally ask you to stay on track with your goals. Mark out times at 2, 4 and 6 week intervals to see if you have kept yourself accountable to your goal. Be sure that when you do this, you stop what you are doing and spend some time thinking about why you originally set the goal or desired habit. Don't let the reminder become effectively 'white noise.'