“Habits are formed by the repetition of particular acts. They are strengthened by an increase in the number of repeated acts. Habits are also weakened or broken, and contrary habits are formed by the repetition of contrary acts.” — Mortimer J. Adler
If you’re like me and countless others, you probably get pumped when reading about the latest diet, exercise, or habit craze that guarantees if we just follow the program, then we’re golden. But, even with the fiercest of determination and the closest of monitoring, we sometimes fall short of hitting our goal.
So, why is that?
For example, a diet plan may suggest to cut out drinking our daily calories by eliminating sugary sodas, flavored coffee or alcohol consumption and to increase our water intake. Easy-peasy, right?
I gained 5 pounds.
The reason? Sometimes, we’re focusing so much attention on what not to do, or what we ‘should’ be doing, that we lose the intention. We wind up missing the forest for the trees.
There’s other nuances we should also consider, not only with changing-up our eating behaviors, but in learning how to apply these type of micro-behaviors to everything in our lives — from our relationships to our dreaded comfort zone.
It’s these nuances that can often make or break creating — and maintaining — healthier habits for ourselves.
Think about it. Every day, we get up, start our day with coffee, scroll through our social media, check our email and start work. We shift into auto-pilot somewhere throughout the day, which identifies our Comfort Zone.
Is it a bad thing? Well. Yes. And no.
The idea of a Comfort Zone dates back to a psychological experiment by Robert Yerkes and John D. Dodson, who argued that a comfort zone is the outcome of “a steady and consistent level of performance.” Here is where we often become reluctant to step outside of the box and explore self-development, to ditch bad habits, or to build healthy new ones.
Our Comfort Zone is where things are familiar, which is just that: comforting. And, because it’s comfortable, we’re unconsciously drawn to it. It’s like a safety bubble, and if we’re within the confines of our comfort zone, we’re choosing to live life within the box. This typically means we’re shying away from change, from making any waves that could trigger anxiety, or from stepping outside of the box.
However, comfort zones are what should be avoided when it comes to work productivity, daily routines and our personal relationships. Ironically, these situations are where we typically find ourselves most often within our comfort zone, often without realizing we’re smack-dab in the middle of it…and stuck.
Getting unstuck, according to Yerkes & Dodson, is about hitting that sweet spot in what they refer to as “optimal anxiety” where our motivation and stress levels are higher than the balance seen in our comfort zone, but not so high that that it scares us into regression or complacency.
Finding that growth-oriented sweet spot is challenging because it triggers anxiety…which decreases motivation…which keeps us stuck.
See the cycle?
Motivation Alone Isn’t Enough
We have been conditioned to think that if we are motivated enough to eliminate a bad habit or to begin a healthy one, then that should be enough to light a fire under our ass and keep us motivated.
That couldn’t be further from the truth.
The fact is, psychology has proven time and again that humans are hardwired to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. When it comes to our behavior, it’s no exception to the rule. We are prone to minimize doing anything that has the potential for failure, and we tend to over-shoot our confidence when it comes to things that seem like an easy win.
When we are in our comfort zone — whether our habits are helping us or hurting us— there’s a sense of balance in our lives. Even if we’re stuck on auto-pilot and it’s negatively affecting our happiness, our relationships or our sense of Self, there’s still a level of predictability to it.
Changing our behavior requires more than our motivation and attention. It can become a slippery slope when first trying something new, or when ditching something that is no longer helping our cause, because it can trigger unpredictability.
For example, Behavior Analysis focuses on our environment — in shaping, changing or structuring our environment to support behavior change. Suffice to say, when we stir up changes in our environment, things may feel unpredictable at first.
However, we can’t always radically change our environment by quitting our job if we aren’t seeing eye-to-eye with our boss or the direction the company may be going. And, if we actually care about our S.O., we may not be in the habit of ditching a relationship when stressors kick up or when communication shuts down.
These present situations where we can’t (or won’t) change the environment we’re in, so something else needs to change.
Thus, here are where micro-behaviors can help ease us out of our comfort zone while making our work environment more productive, our relationships healthier and more satisfying — while limiting the discomfort of the unpredictable. Ample existing research supports the utility of If/Then intentions spurring action for changes within governmental programs, personal growth and health-related goals (Gollwitzer, 1999; Rothman, et al., 2015).
Creating If/Then Intentions And Micro-Behaviors
What I realized from gaining 5 pounds a few years ago on that diet, was that I was focusing on what not to do (don’t drink this, or don’t eat that), that I wasn’t looking at micro-behaviors I could be engaging in throughout the day such as if I managed portion size, then I could eat more sensibly.
Luckily, here’s where creating If/Then micro-behaviors can offer support. For example, a micro behavior with dieting could be reducing how many overall bites we take each meal, such as — if I eat three bites less each meal, then I can stop when I’m satisfied instead of stopping when I’m full.
Another micro-behavior could be to immediately get up from the table when done eating — if I get up from the table and put my dish in the dishwasher, then I won’t be tempted to eat more.
Micro-behaviors don’t end with simple diet changes. They are the type of behaviors we can — and should — add into our behavioral repertoire each day, every day. Every time. This is how we begin building micro-behaviors that can quickly build momentum and foster a solid habit. Score.
Examples of micro-behaviors to engage in:
- If I turn off the t.v. 5 minutes earlier, then I can spend more quality time with my S.O.
- If I drink an extra 3 glasses of water a day, then I can feel fuller, and stay on track with sensible-eating goals.
- If I switch up my exercise routine each day, then I won’t bore as easily.
- If I try a different way of communicating my needs to my S.O., then we can elevate our level of intimacy and togetherness.
- If I structure my workday by eliminating the easy tasks first, then I can have more time for complex tasks.
- If I automate my emails, then I can gain some extra productivity throughout my workday.
- If I choose vulnerability one day a week with my S.O., then I can build up a new level of intimacy.
- If I choose to make dinner tonight, then I can add the money saved to my savings account.
If/Then Is A Start….
…But, it’s not enough to master a new healthy habit, or to ditch a bad one.
In order for us to maximize the payout from If/Then micro-behaviors, they need to be done with consistency. Here is where auto-pilot and comfort zones start vying for our attention — it’s just easier to fall back into old habits and old routines, right?
However, there’s a more important step: intention. Intention isn’t only the “If/Then” statements we create as part of building micro-habits.
Intentions also include:
Pausing. Each and every time we’re presented a choice of using If/Then, we need to train ourselves to pause with intention, before engaging in our If/Then behavior.
For example, you may be irked at our S.O. and may be full of ammo you’re ready to fire off at them. And, a couple loaded comments may have escaped before you begin the pause.
The pause is where we mentally prepare our options for creating If-Then micro-behaviors. In this example, you may say to yourself, if we take a timeout and write down our concerns and a possible solution, then we can hopefully avoid an argument.
Keep It Simple. As with the above example, intentions take practice. We can’t have expectations or expect to be perfect. And we need to allow ourselves a learning curve. By keeping your If/Then goals simple, you’re increasing the probability of them being achievable.
Using Visual/Auditory Reminders. There’s ample research supporting the use of visual or auditory reminders, especially for things like building new habits. You can go old-school and add Post-It notes reminding yourself to use If/Then intentions, and to practice the pause ahead of time, or you can opt for cellphone reminders throughout your day, or when stressors happen.
With consistency and intention, building micro-habits are what help us build achievable and realistic goals that limit unpredictability and maximize success.
Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54, 493–503.
Neal, D. T., Wood, W., & Drolet, A. (2013). Habits can aid goal adherence: Profits and pitfalls of strong habits under self-control depletion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104, 959–975.
Rothman, A. J., et al. (2015). How psychological science can create and maintain healthy habits. Prescriptives on Psychological Science, 10(6), 701–705.
Wood, W., & Neal, D. T. (2007). A new look at the habits and the habit-goal interface. Psychological Review, 114, 843-863.
This post was previously published on Medium.
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