Habits in Training: Six Tips for a New Year

PhD Student Advising Articles written by Shannon E. Williams, Assistant Dean for Student Engagement at the Schar School

Have you managed to keep your New Year’s resolutions?

In last month’s post, we discussed stress and its role in performance. The start of a new year is a great time to plan improvements to keep your body and mind in balance during a doctoral program. As we welcomed 2013, it seemed that half the world’s population was earnestly committing to a course of self-improvement. By now, all but a fraction have regressed to their old ways.

Why do so many of us fail at changing our ways? What can we learn from those who make good habits stick? Think about a practice that comes naturally to you.You probably can’t remember the last time you had to remind yourself to pick up your wallet before leaving the house or answer an email with the proper salutation. Intention was required to establish the practice, and now it comes with barely any effort. It may seem like a stretch to frame your self-improvement mission in such simple terms, but basic conditioning is more powerful than you might think. A few easy-to-manage tricks can turn your resolution into rote practice, rendering that grand change as simple as tying your shoes.

Below are six tips and a bit of guidance to help you on your way:

  1. Do the heavy lifting in the morning
  2. Form a tiny habit
  3. Plot your course
  4. Put something compelling in the way
  5. Set a timer
  6. Contrive positive triggers and milestones

The ability to override one behavior and substitute it with another resides at the core of forming healthy habits. Establishing new practices requires something other than self-discipline or “willpower,” which means we can rarely self-talk our way to change. Psychologist Roy Baumeister conceives of self-control as a muscle. Much like a physical capacity, the regulatory muscle grows exhausted when used and this weariness makes it less available for the next event. This phenomenon has a name. It is called “ego depletion.”

The more you tax yourself to stay on task and curb your appetites throughout the day, the more difficult each iteration of self-control becomes. Every act of perseverance, impulse control, and focus causes exhaustion. By the time you arrive home, you may find yourself snapping at your children or talking yourself out of taking the after-dinner walk that seemed like such a breeze when you were planning it that morning. Ego depletion helps explain why many diets break down and tempers flare in the evening.

With our first tip, we head off ego depletion at the pass.

1. Do the heavy lifting in the morning.

Aim to practice the new habit or break the old one when you first get moving. Assuming a decent night’s sleep, most of us start the morning with a strong muscle and a well-stocked supply of energy for self-regulation. During the first weeks of habit-formation in particular, try to stage-manage your day so you can roll out of bed and put the new practice into place.

Of course, not all habits can be formed before breakfast. You can, however, use that early freshness to engineer the situation for later. Take some time in the morning to clear away temptations from the place you spend your evening. If you know you need to work on something difficult in the later hours, for example, arrange the space so you can jump right in when you arrive home. Write the first few sentences of your project in the morning and leave the text open next to the computer. Set yourself up for success.

Attempting to establish a novel approach can seem overwhelming, especially when an old way is so ingrained. It can help to take small bites. Consider the second tip when choosing a starting point for a new practice.

2. Form a tiny habit.

Let go of the sweeping change. A good resolution is a specific, manageable and achievable one.

Imagine a person in in mediocre physical shape deciding to transform herself starting right now. She signs up for a 10K taking place tomorrow morning. She plans to dig out her entire back yard for a new garden two days after that and agrees to help a neighbor move furniture into a new third-floor condo. Our friend would probably end up on a stretcher before she reached the fourth kilometer of her race. The garden would barely be a scratch in the soil, and her neighbor would end up hiring movers.

When it comes to physical training, most of us understand that it is impossible to accomplish great feats all at once. The obvious course of action is conditioning. Our friend should start by simply putting on her running shoes every morning for a week. She doesn’t even need to walk outside in them, just put them on. Once that becomes routine, she can walk down the block five times. Then circle the block. A few weeks later, she can jog one lap. A series of exercises with focused, short-term objectives allow her to strengthen different muscle groups and to increase endurance. In a few weeks or months, she no longer has to employ grueling focus to kick out a decent run. With that specific routine in place, she can set her gaze on the next physical milestone.

B.J. Fogg at the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab suggests building new practices upon these “tiny habits.” (Sommer) Choose a target behavior that is miniscule enough to be easy and then “anchor” it to something you already do habitually. If your goal is to exercise more, simply do two leg lifts right when you take the fork out of the silverware drawer for lunch. Once that small process becomes so rote you no longer have to think about it (this usually takes about three weeks), then you no longer need to draw upon your reserve of self-regulation in order to achieve it. You have strengthened a habit and now your self-control muscle is ready to tackle the next small practice.

No one wakes up one morning with super-human strength. An athlete strengthens muscle by using muscle. You can use your willpower to build willpower. Habits need to be conditioned into practice. The third tip can help you chart your training program.

3. Plot your course.

One eye-opening experiment suggests students with a study plan perform better than those without one, even given similar stressors (Oaten). Students who had drafted plans did not see performance deteriorate as much as their counterparts. The pattern of self-regulating through planning, or “trait self control,” as it is sometimes called, “has been especially successful at predicting performance at school and work, which depends less on a single heroic feat of will than on having steady, reliable work habits.” (Baumeister) In other words, you do not need to take great initiative and use up your self-control muscle to get over the hump if you have established the practice of studying in small, cumulative ways.

It may be the case that having a concrete program in hand reduces the effects of ego depletion by freeing you from having to think through each next step. A map, like a syllabus, guides you to your goal and simplifies decisions for those moments you are most likely to lack the self-control to impose them on yourself. It also breaks the process down into “tiny habits.” Remember that simple, routine practices are easier to achieve especially during the habit formation phase.

With a plan, you can stay steady and focused in your approach, armed with the knowledge that ego depletion is real. Nothing is so simple, of course. It is also dangerous to stay too steady and focused. Several experiments suggest that the act of attending to what you want to avoid can trigger an impulse to go towards the very behavior you seek to eliminate. (Alberts) You may believe you are depleted from sticking with a new habit when, in fact, the act of staying on task is not what fatigued you. The demands of resisting impulses may contribute more to ego depletion than practicing the new habit.

Our next tip calls for throwing a few preemptive diversions in your path so you do not have to fight so hard for control.

4. Put something compelling in the way.

Ego depletion is more pronounced when your desire is already triggered. At that point, distracting yourself from an impulse takes effort. Paradoxically, distraction can also work to your benefit to keep you from triggering the desired impulse in the first place.

If you are trying to keep yourself on track on your jog through the city, passing a coffee shop with its display of fresh pastries might make you trade your workout for a latte. It is much easier to keep going if you are jogging with a friend and having an interesting conversation. The discussion diverts your attention and could very well render the coffee shop inconsequential. You would not need to use extra muscle to avoid a bad habit and stick with your good one.

High “cognitive load,” or mental engagement in a taxing activity, helped participants in one study turn a blind eye to a tempting stimulus. They had a much easier time ignoring it and making healthy choices when they were drawn into the work at hand. “To the extent that it prevents the development of desire in the first place, cognitive load may thus provide an effective buffer against a variety of temptations in our living environment.” (Van Dillen, Papies, and Hofmann) People with something to distract from the difficulty of their undertaking have greater persistence and perform better than those who expend effort powering through the task.

This phenomenon raises questions about the gap between actual effort and perceived effort. If you think you are working hard and have to force yourself to work hard, you deplete yourself far more than the exertion required by the task itself. Alberts’ work on attention goes on to argue that “the occurrence of ego depletion (at least partly) reflects the interpretation of one’s regulatory efforts.” (Alberts) Our fifth tip can help you rein in your unrealistic concepts of exertion.

5. Set a timer.

Misperceptions of time influence how long people persist with a practice. If you are overly aware of how hard it is to do what you are doing, you may well create an inner dialogue that goes something like this: “I wish I could take a break and go check Facebook. I can’t check Facebook, though, because I have to finish this chapter. Man, it is tough to stay focused! I have been working so hard here avoiding Facebook. Okay, I’m going to take a break to check now.” Each time you remind yourself to avoid the bad habit and stick with the good habit, your self-control muscle takes another hit. Indeed, data suggest that “a taxing self-regulatory activity is remembered as being over long, and this perception renders people less likely to sustain self-regulation efforts.” (Vohs and Schmeichel) Because effort makes time seem longer, and each moment of self-regulation taxes you further, you can wear yourself out in a relatively short time. This can render your self-control muscle unavailable for further use.

Remove the need to keep yourself on track by allowing the clock to count the minutes for you. Engage fully until the timer buzzes. You will have conserved your willpower by eliminating the need to keep returning your attention to the task at hand. Do this a little at a time, starting with short durations of time and slowly increasing them until you have established the habit without the need for constant internal chatter.

Time limits are only the beginning. Other set-points can help you stay on track, which brings us to the final tip.

6. Create positive triggers and milestones.

Contrary to what we like to believe, the mind can be easily fooled. One experiment shows that people served from smaller bowls consumed fewer calories even when the same amount of food was available in an all-you-can-eat setting. (Wansink) You can contrive boundaries, establish intermittent finish lines, and create small rewards for yourself at set points along the way. Each of these triggers and milestones will be unique depending on the nature of the habit you are trying to break or cultivate. Below are a few examples:

  • Only eat food that requires utensils
  • Never take the elevator between the first and second floors
  • At every 500 or 1000 word interval, stop and take one lap around the building
  • Sing one verse of a childhood song while folding laundry
  • When you are waiting at that one clogged intersection every morning, list three happy moments from your previous day

These little tricks will free you from wobbling under the weight of a huge undertaking. They will also allow you to build on minor successes and can help you remember to stick to the habit as you establish new routines.

The hardest work of resolutions may come before you even start. With so many aspects of life demanding improvement, it can be tough to identify specific, manageable, and measurable goals. Just remember that the folks who succeed are those take it one small habit at a time. Learn from their approach to change. Take tiny bites, establish routines, distract yourself from the effort, and celebrate each victory before moving on to the next challenge.

Alberts, Hugo J. E. M.Martijn. “Distracting the Self: Shifting Attention Prevents Ego Depletion.” Self & Identity 7.3 (2008): 322–334. Print.

Baumeister, Roy F. “Self-control — the Moral Muscle.” Psychologist 25.2 (2012): 112–115. Print.

Oaten, MeganCheng. “Improved Self-Control: The Benefits of a Regular Program of Academic Study.” Basic & Applied Social Psychology 28.1 (2006): 1–16. Print.

Sommer, Lauren. “Think Tiny: The Science of New Year’s Resolutions.” Web. Science.kqued.org. Dec. 28, 2012.

Van Dillen, Lotte F., Esther K. Papies, and Wilhelm Hofmann. “Turning a Blind Eye to Temptation: How Cognitive Load Can Facilitate Self-Regulation.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2012): n. pag. Web. 14 Jan. 2013.

Vohs, Kathleen D., and Brandon J. Schmeichel. “Self-regulation and Extended Now: Controlling the Self Alters the Subjective Experience of Time.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 85.2 (2003): 217–230.

Wansink, Brian and Matthew M. Cheney. “Super Bowls: Serving Bowl Size and Food Consumption.” JAMA : the journal of the American Medical Association 293.14 (2005): 1727–8.