Are you trying to create a new healthy habit? Piggyback it on something you do anyway. Want to run more? Put on your running shoes instead of your regular shoes, says Dr Sean Young, a world expert in making new habits stick.
This is a strategy he’s created called “magnetic behaviour”. “If we already do something regularly, we can then pair up that behaviour with a new behaviour we want to start doing,” he says. It’s about building a habit, making it easier and ingraining it into your life.
Founder of the UCLA Center for Digital Behaviour, Young has made a life study of successful behaviour change. People who follow his strategies are “nearly three times as likely to change their behaviour as people who did not”, he tells me. His new book, Stick With It: The Science Of Lasting Behaviour, was a Wall Street Journal bestseller when it came out in the US last year.
New Year’s resolutions are a bit like bad relationships
OK, I’m sold. But, for many, New Year’s resolutions are a bit like bad relationships. At first, they’re alive with possibility and potential, and we have a huge fantasy of this being The One that works out. By mid February, they’ve either ended abruptly or fizzled out, and we’re back on the wine or sugar, off the yoga mat or treadmill.
Young tells me how he cured a gym-going relapse. “I used to go to the gym on campus pretty regularly. Then, at a certain point, I stopped going as frequently. If someone would have seen my behaviour, they probably would have said he’s gotten lazy or tired or he’s older now – he doesn’t have time or isn’t as motivated to go.”
If we already do something regularly, we can then pair up that behaviour with a new behaviour we want to start doing. It’s about building a habit.
But the real reason that he didn’t go is because he’d moved office and it now took 40 minutes in traffic to drive to the gym.
His first step was making going to the gym easier. “I joined a gym across the street from my work.” Now, this is the clever bit, the magnetic behaviour: “I carry around a gym bag with me. When I walk to my car every day at the end of work, I can’t go to my car without passing the gym and I’m wearing my gym bag while I’m doing it. What I’ve done is paired a behaviour I do every day – leaving work – with having my gym bag while walking past the gym.” Now, he’s back to being a regular gym-goer.
Can he suggest a magnetic behaviour if you want to drink more water? “If you bring your lunch to work with you – something you’re used to doing every day – then add a water bottle,” he says. Or pair it up with checking social media (I’d definitely have done my two litres by 11am some days).
So, what about a popular resolution to do yoga every damn day? The problem with this challenge, according to Young, is that it’s way too vague.
Resolutions that stick are broken down into small steps
Resolutions that stick are broken down into small steps, which he calls stepladders. “We plan to do all kinds of resolutions that are equivalent to the marathon without having trained for it.”
So, 10 minutes of yoga a day? That’s doable. Now, we need to work out how to make getting on the mat happen.
“Think: what is preventing you? What is getting in the way?” It may be just a question of making time; time we can easily waste on social media. He suggests a magnetic behaviour linked to clothes: when we get changed out of our work clothes, put your yoga clothes next to the clothes you normally change into. (I’m going to try this in reverse: before I get dressed in the morning, I’m going to do 10 minutes of yoga in my pyjamas!)
“The way actually to control our thoughts is to first control our behaviour, then our thoughts will follow.”
Even if you’re the most optimistic of positive thinkers, you can’t rely on that to get you doing whatever new behaviour you want to try, says Young. The only way to change is by doing it. “The way actually to control our thoughts is to first control our behaviour, then our thoughts will follow.”
Start with small, specific steps – ones you can fit into your day
Start with small, specific steps – ones you can fit into your day. Not crowbarring vague or giant or difficult changes into your life – because they just won’t last. Young makes change sound a lot more doable and, this year, it just might be.