Habits, decisions, and results

I collect rules-of-thumb the way some people collect fantasy sports-league players.  (Willy Pareto? Economist out of Turino Tech.)  But I’m cautious when the rule seems too broad or the numbers too specific.  After all, it wasn’t Vilfredo himself but Joseph Juran who suggested that the 80/20 rule be called the Pareto principle.

Lately I’ve been trying to change some everyday behavior, and so this PsyBlog post, How Long to Form a Habit?, pulled me in.

(Disclaimer: when someone asks, from a training viewpoint, “How long does it take to develop [whatever]?” I habitually ask myself, “How long is a rope?”)

The PsyBlog post says participants in a study (working on new habits like eating fruit with lunch or running 15 minutes per day) on average hit a plateau in about 66 days.  As the chart (from the post) shows, you get to your “drink more water” goal much fasts than your “do 50 sit-ups” goal.

The post links to an abstract for the actual study, which notes that of the original 96 participants, 82 had enough data for the study, 62 fit the statistical model, and 39 had “a good fit.”    And the range to automaticity varied–from 18 to 254 days.

I got curious and found some other items on habit, which Wikipedia defines as a routine of behavior, repeated regularly, that tends to occur subconsciously.

Under that definition,  I have a habit of carrying my wallet in my left front pocket; this is an oddity, I realize, but it’s behavior of longstanding, such that I feel strange to have the wallet anywhere else.

Habits are learned behaviors, and a 2005 article on CNET News cites an MIT study looking at how old (presumably bad) habits reassert themselves.  It claims habit gets established in the basal ganglia (site of, among other things, procedural learning and addictive behavior).

Backsliding is easier, then, and to counteract it, we may need to be conscious not only of the former habit but of the presumably better behavior we want to make as automatic as possible.

I found lots of silliness–21 days to establish a habit, or 99, or 60, and one guy who said he could establish one in a day.  (Maybe if you’re establishing the habit of having maple syrup on vanilla ice cream.)

If it’s not currently part of your standard behavior, then to establish a habit, you’re got to exert some effort.  Initially you’re likely dealing with a lack of immediate, enjoyable payback.  And almost by definition, you’re disturbing of your behavioral routine.

I found a 2007 Psychological Review article by Wendy Wood and David T. Neil, A New Look at Habits and the Habit-Goal Interface (21-page PDF).

Habits are learned dispositions to repeat past responses. They are triggered by features of the context that have covaried frequently with past performance, including performance locations, preceding actions in a sequence, and particular people. Contexts activate habitual responses directly, without the mediation of goal states.

In other words, acquiring a habit means you’re likely to repeat a given action.  Settings that invite that action do so directly–you don’t think about losing weight (a goal) as you do about eating fruit rather than a bag of chips.

Wood and Neil propose three principles:

  • Habits are cued by context. You can learn to associate a context; after a while, the context can do its own triggering.  (This explains the advice to insomniacs about not watching TV, reading too much, or tossing and turning for long times in bed.  They’re working to create an association between bed and sleep.)
  • Over time, the goal fades but the habit remains. ( “Habit context-response associations are not mediated by goals.” )This explains why my dad continued to buy kid-friendly cereal years after all of us were grown and married.  He’d done the grocery shopping for 20 years; his choices were a habit.  He didn’t eat the cereal himself, and my mother’s…feedback, let’s call it…took a long time to have any impact.
  • Habits interact with goals. Initially, goals direct habits; over time, habits and goals influence each other.

It seems to me, then, that when we talk about acquiring good habits, we’re likely not only adding to our current repertory of activity; we’re likely replacing something seen as less helpful.

The Wood & Neal article discusses that at more length than I have space in this post.  Also, I haven’t fully established the habit of reading 21-page journal articles on the screen.  So I’m printing the PDF, and I’ll have a future post on habits, goals, and how they might get me to the gym more often while surfing online a bit less.

2 thoughts on “Habits, decisions, and results

  1. Just jumped from reading this – http://usablelearning.wordpress.com/2009/09/22/daniel-pink-and-framing-the-task/ – at Usable Learning to your post.

    If habits are cued by context, endure despite fading goals (which they nevertheless interact with) AND you can develop the reframing technique described by Usable Learning then it would seem that ‘improving’ habit could itself become a habit.

    One could become a true ‘progressive’. You could become to habit what Houdini was to mentalism. You could become a habit ninja.

  2. Part of what that second principle meant is that, once a habit’s established (either deliberately, or as a result of an association found rewarding), the habit response (the behavior) will occur without any thought about the goal. If you started buying the paper to idle over it with your coffee, paper-with-coffee will become a habit that will tend to persist even if you have the new goal of saving money (and thus not buying the paper).

    I’m still working through the article in terms of the dynamic between habits and goals. If the connection were simple, we’d all have only good habits.

    The reframing is certainly a part of it–but I’m thinking that the various performance contexts matter. For example, you might produce certain behavior at work, in particular situations, but completely different behavior at home, although the conditions might seem similar.

    (The do-it-now manager who lets his spouse handle all the housework, say.)

    Longstanding habits may be very difficult to change, and we may not really be able to replace them with another (habitual) behavior. The best we might hope for is the ability to choose that alternative behavior deliberately because we recognize the context giving rise to the old habit.

    In part this explains why I hardly ever have potato chips in the house.

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