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3 New Findings on Beating Bad Habits

Do you exercise your free will to its fullest potential?

T. Kaiser / Unsplash
Source: T. Kaiser / Unsplash

As much as we would like to believe that we are in complete control of our actions, the truth is that a large portion of our behavior is dictated by our habits and impulses. Research suggests that this is the case for almost all of us, though some personality types tend to be more in control than others. At some point, automated actions based on little-to-no conscious thought kick in and guide our behavior in ways we don’t even realize.

In fact, a recent study by Wendy Wood of the University of Southern California found that more than 40% of peoples’ daily behavior was habitual.

Because of this, deconstructing the causes behind the habituation of our actions and searching for new ways to integrate intention and self-control into our lives has taken center stage in the field of psychology. Here are three research-based pieces of wisdom that can help you override your "default behavior."

1. Create a ‘friction-free’ environment. According to a study by psychologist Asaf Mazar of the University of Southern California, one of the biggest mistakes we make when trying to change something about our behavior is misattributing it to our mood. This means that we are unaware of whether a certain behavior is the result of a long-standing habit or an inner state.

“If we keep thinking that behavior is driven by inner states, we’ll keep trying to regulate behavior by regulating inner states,” explains Mazar. “But in the case of habits, this approach won’t cut it. Habits can persist even when we intend to act differently.”

After acknowledging this bias, one effective way to change habits is to design environments that support good habits and impede bad ones. This can be done by reducing "friction" — seemingly minor obstacles that stand in the way of positive behavior — in our environments.

“We find that friction can exert an outsize influence on behavior, but people tend to under-appreciate its effects when trying to change their habits,” says Mazar. As an example, if you are trying to break your morning espresso addiction, try stocking your cabinet with green tea rather than relying on your willpower to turn the other way first thing in the morning.

2. Use ‘if-then’ action planning. If you are trying to turn a novel behavior into a habit, a recent study suggests that the trick might be to think about performing a certain behavior in a certain situation — in other words, creating a stimulus-response link in thought.

Psychologist Torsten Martiny-Huenger of UiT The Arctic University of Norway refers to this as adding a situational cue, or if-then action planning.

Suppose, for instance, you agree to do a friend a favor, like sending a web address that you have as a bookmark on your home computer. But you’re at work so you can’t access the bookmark right away. According to the study, the best way to accomplish this would be to think repeatedly, “The next time I start my home computer (situational cue), I’ll first send my friend the web address.”

This will establish a strategic link between the intention and situation and eliminate the need for relying on some coincidence to remind you about the intention. Not only will this help you exert self-control, but it also can improve your memory.

“Link the intended behavior to situational cues that provide good opportunities to initiate them,” says Martiny-Huenger. “When you want to get a little more physically active, for instance, repeatedly think to yourself, ‘When I’m waiting in front of the elevator, I’ll turn around and use the stairs.’ Such if-then planning is not magic and it will not lead to successfully implementing the intended behavior every time, but it will increase the likelihood of it.”

3. ‘Ego-align’ your actions to your values. If you are someone who finds it difficult to make decisions or you often feel conflicted about your actions, a recent study may have a solution for you: ego-alignment.

Ego alignment, according to the researchers, describes the connection between an individual’s ability to know what they should do in certain situations versus actually performing the “correct” action.

“It occurred to us that by using both ‘would do’ and ‘should do’ instructions, we could examine a very interesting question — the extent to which a given person would do what he or she thinks to be effective in a given situation,” says psychologist Michael Robinson of North Dakota State University. “Individuals who have high levels of ego alignment are likely to live better and less conflicted lives. By contrast, misaligned individuals are essentially working at cross purposes. They act in ways that they, themselves, know to be problematic. This is a more id-like mode of existence.”

Ego-aligned individuals are better equipped to make decisions that may be unpleasant in the short term but that have long-term benefits. Moreover, because of their focus on problem-solving, they are less likely to view difficult decisions as aversive.

Conclusion: Habits and impulses are methods developed by our mind and body to make our lives easier and more efficient. However, if we do not review and revise them on a regular basis, we can spend huge portions of our lives going down the wrong path.

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