The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to form new habits. We now work from home, wear masks in public places and sanitize our groceries. Have you ever wondered how the human mind forms new habits and breaks old ones? Let’s look at the psychology of habits for some insights. 

But first, what is a habit? A habit can be defined as a frequent and automatic action in response to a stimulus in your environment. Your habits and routines enable you to be consistent. This is the key to achieving your goals. 

Here are some tips from behavioral science to help you form and stick to new habits:

1. Nudge yourself 

If you have ever shopped online, you may have noticed that the products you are interested in are shown as being low in stock. This is an example of a nudge. This small piece of information makes you want to buy the product immediately. 

Nudge theory was popularized in the book titled Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth And Happiness by University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler and Harvard Law School Professor Cass Sunstein. The underlying principle of nudge theory is that small and subtle modifications to your environment can have a large impact on your behavior. Nudges can help you change your behavior in a manner more aligned to your goals. 

You can use this principle on your quest to form a new habit. For example, say you decide to minimize distractions on social media during office hours. You could download an app that limits your use of social media on your phone or computer. If you got an app that blocks certain sites, it would eliminate distractions and help you stay focused on your work. You could get an app that tracks how much time you spend on various sites. This could help you manage your time better. When you spend more than the time you have allotted for watching videos or scrolling through your Instagram feed, the app would remind you to return to work. The key to effectively using nudges is identifying the habit you want to form or change. After that, it is just a matter of making small changes to your environment that enable you to form that habit. 

2. Make it tiny 

To set yourself up for success, break down the steps you need to follow to form your habit into tiny actions that are easy to learn and practice. For example, if you want to improve your communication skills, you may decide to get in touch with one colleague every week to catch up. Or you could decide to contribute to each meeting by sharing one idea. Small habit changes like these can pay dividends when you are working from home.

According to Dr. BJ Fogg, director of the Stanford Behaviour Design Lab and author of Tiny Habits, it isn’t a good idea to try to make too big a change in one go. This sets us up for failure. Big behavior changes rely largely on motivation, which can waver. 

The key here is to make the behavior change so small and easy that you don’t have an excuse to say no. Although these tiny actions may seem entirely insignificant at first, they become the building blocks of your new habits over time. Once you have created tiny habits by making small changes, it becomes easier to work towards larger changes in behavior. 

3. Stay consistent 

We unconsciously crave consistency between what we say and what we do. According to Dr. Cialdini, a professor of Psychology and Marketing, human beings experience discomfort if their actions don't align with their commitments. In his book Influence: The Psychology Of Persuasion, Dr. Cialdini discussed the Principle of Consistency, which is one of six scientific principles guiding the art of influencing people. 

The Principle of Consistency can assist you in your quest to form and stick to a new habit. For instance, when you decide to form a new habit, you should share it with your family and friends. By making your decision of forming a particular habit public, you will experience an internal pressure to be consistent with it. The more consistent you are with your new habit, the easier it will become for you to stick to it. 

Conclusion

Always remember that new behaviors can become habits only if you practice them continuously. Neuroscientific research shows that neurons in the brain fire and create pathways every time you practice a new behavior. The stronger this neural pathway becomes, the easier it will become for you to perform the new habit. 

Habit-building can be fun too. Use rewards to encourage yourself to invest more time and effort into habit formation. 

Habits take a long time to form. So don’t be too hard on yourself. Keep going slowly and steadily, and you will be well on your way to conquering your dreams!

Akanksha Singh is an Associate in the Curriculum team at Harappa Education. A postgraduate in Social Cognition, Akanksha spends her free time binge-watching animated movies and telling people that she can’t read their minds.


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