While our brains have many vital functions, the most important is to keep us alive. Our minds can protect us in a couple of ways: by looking carefully for signs of danger (often signaled by anxiety), maintaining homeostasis, and steering us toward that which is familiar, comfortable, and therefore safe.
As much as our brain's survival strategies make sense, they can also become problematic. If you have ever tried to make progress towards a goal, break a bad habit, or make a significant change in your life, you know how difficult it can be.
We often think we can use motivation to muscle through this difficulty. But motivation is unreliable. It is easily influenced by external factors (such as hunger, sleep deprivation) and internal factors (such as fear, boredom, sadness). Just think about the last time you tried to make a positive change. If you are like most people, you probably started with a lot of excitement and motivation. But within a couple of weeks, days, or even hours, your motivation waned, and your goals fell out of reach. So how do we make progress towards our goals if we can't rely on motivation? Building small habits over time and practicing self-control two keys.
Habits are defined as automatic actions that occur in response to associated contextual (or environmental) cues. For example, most people have a habit of washing our hands after the contextual cue of using the toilet. Habit change has been studied extensively, especially regarding improving health outcomes (Gardner, 2012). Studies have revealed a couple of crucial elements of effective habit change:
- Make sure you have a clear goal and a clear, actionable habit that will help you obtain that goal.
- Start small; the smaller, the better. Our brains look to expend as little energy as possible, so smaller habits are more likely to stick.
- Set the contextual cue. A useful contextual cue requires that you clearly define when and where your new habit will occur. Something that happens frequently and is already an ingrained habit is an ideal contextual cue (for example, brushing your teeth in the morning).
- Write down your habits, goals, and keep track of your progress in a place where you can see it.
Researchers have actually shown that self-control is much like a muscle: The more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes (Muraven, 2010). So how do you strengthen your self-control? Think about something you find challenging. Then find a way that you can push yourself to do at least some of that difficult task.
Choose something small enough that you are confident that you can do it, even if it may be a little unpleasant. For example, if you don't enjoy exercise, but you have a goal to improve your physical health by exercising more, push yourself to go to walk around the block once or do five jumping jacks. You can even look for ways to practice self-control that are unrelated to your goals. For example, you may decide to learn to play an instrument solely because you know it will be challenging, and regular practice will require a lot of self-control.
Like anything, practicing self-control and building habit change can go too far. At times, our "hustle culture" can push us to take productivity and goal-setting to toxic levels. Habit changes and increasing self-control should be vehicles for improving long-term wellness. However, if we become obsessed with perfectionism, continually making progress, or pushing past our limits, then our mental health can suffer. It is essential to check in with yourself often to make sure that your goals are serving you, and not the other way around.
Gardner, B., Lally, P., & Wardle, J. (2012). Making health habitual: the psychology of 'habit-formation' and general practice. The British Journal of General Practice, 62(605), 664–666.
Muraven M. (2010). Building self-control strength: Practicing self-control leads to improved self-control performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46(2), 465–468.