- Recent research into unconscious processes helps us understand habit formation.
- You can use successful strategies to form new habits, such as pairing a new habit with a behavior you already enjoy.
- Focusing on strategies that generate positive feelings is more successful than shaming yourself.
New research suggesting that most of our daily functioning is unconscious and automatic (Weinberger & Stoycheva, 2019) may help us better understand why it is so hard to develop new habits. Our bodies and minds are simply evolutionarily calibrated to operate under the guidance of well-rehearsed patterns of behavior—patterns that often remain outside of the realm of conscious awareness.
This is adaptive: If we consciously processed and thoughtfully reacted to every stimulus in our environment, we would get quickly overwhelmed. Imagine being acutely aware, at the same time, of the itchy fabric of your sweater, the sound of the faucet dripping, the rumbling in your stomach, the multiple thoughts in your head, the nagging worry that a delivery package is running late, your partner’s foot tap-tap-tapping on the floor, the smell of a scented candle lingering in the air, the itch on the tip of your nose, the urge to check what the next item on your to-do list is, the sound of the TV as you read this post… you get the point. And this is just a discreet moment in time, free of more intense emotions or traumas. So, we process most of our sensory input and respond to much of it automatically. The same applies to more complex behavioral patterns as well.
However, while automatic processes allow us to function fluently in our lives, they also make it hard to uproot old habits (which, you guessed it, have become automatic) and form new ones. The latter requires a lot of conscious effort and monitoring of our behavior, as well as, oftentimes, actively regulating complex emotions and rearranging our daily lives to make room for changes. Luckily, as we are learning more about how our minds work, we now know how to leverage the role of normative unconscious processes to help us create new habits more easily.
1. Make it desirable.
Often when trying to develop a new habit, we make the mistake of approaching it through a limiting viewpoint. We tell ourselves that we “should” exercise more, write for an hour each morning, drink less coffee, or go to bed earlier. As a result, we start to unconsciously associate the new habit with negative emotions. Not only is it the reason why we would be giving up something that requires no conscious effort (the old behavior that we are trying to change), but the benefits of the new habit are not yet felt.
A more effective strategy is to try to find something that is already positively charged about the behavior you are attempting to develop. For example, if you are trying to write more, find a writing group, so you can receive feedback on your writing on a regular basis. Feeling supported feels good and, therefore, it will help you want to write more. If you are trying to go to bed earlier, it may be helpful to tie a positive element to the desired bedtime routine so you look forward to it. Perhaps an earlier bedtime in and of itself is not that tempting but having an hour to yourself in the morning is, so shifting your routine may allow for that. Try to identify something reinforcing that the new habit will result in.
Pairing is a term from behavioral theory describing the process through which one stimulus becomes attached to another, so that they both begin eliciting the same emotion. For example, if your child dislikes pea puree but really likes a certain song, you may start trying to feed them the puree as you play that song. After a while, they may begin eating it because it becomes associated with the positive emotion from the tune. (Think back to your childhood. Those of you who had a relative who always brought amazing gifts for the holidays probably remember how much they anticipated the arrival of that relative!)
You can use this strategy to pair the new habit you are hoping to develop with something that you already enjoy. If running is hard but you love books, try pairing jogging with listening to an audiobook. This way, you look forward to the unfolding of the story that goes along with your run.
3. Watch out for ironic processes.
There is a saying in psychoanalytic circles that “the unconscious does not know the word no.” In other words, the more you try to avoid doing something (squash an old habit), the more you end up thinking about it. Once in your conscious thought, the behavior is harder to control.
Imagine you are trying to eat fewer processed foods and you tell yourself, “Don’t buy bread at the store.” The word “bread” is already resonating in your awareness, tempting you to reach for it. And that is why this is called an ironic process—the more we try to avoid it, the more it pops up all around us.
The key here is to create a new habit that circumvents the presence of bread in your thought process altogether. Strategies for doing this may range from the strictly behavioral (making sure you shop at times when you are less stressed and more satiated, so you feel less tempted by the idea of bread) to the social (engaging social supports, such as asking your partner to create a shopping list and going to the grocery store) to cognitive/emotional distraction (finding something really exciting to put on the shopping list so it keeps you occupied while you are at the store).
4. Try and try and try again.
If you are having a hard time forming a new habit, do not let yourself become easily discouraged. Altering behaviors, especially ones that you have been engaging in for a long time, is difficult not because you do not try hard enough but because it is a process that inherently requires a lot of conscious effort. To create a habit means to rehearse a behavior over and over again until it becomes your go-to—until it is at least as easily accessible and automatic as the behavior you are trying to extinguish. In other words, it requires making the conscious unconscious. The process requires effort and conscious attention to our actions.
Research suggests that with certain unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking or excessively drinking alcohol, most people quit only after multiple attempts (Chaiton et al., 2016; Kelly et al., 2019). And while not all habits to be replaced include a component of physical dependency, they were all initially formed because you got something from them—some sense of gratification or safety or self-soothing.
It takes time for new behaviors to serve that function. In addition, in moments of stress, we tend to easily default to older habits, rather than to the new ones (Weinberger & Stoycheva, 2019). If you beat yourself up or shame yourself for failing, you are likely to experience the exact negative emotion that will make you want to reach out for the old behavior, thus making you less motivated to focus on the new habit.
Accepting that forming a new habit may take time and multiple attempts is more likely to help you succeed. Plus, doesn’t it feel better to know that you are doing something difficult and that you can be kinder to yourself while at it?
Weinberger, J. & Stoycheva, V. (2019). The unconscious: Theory, research, and clinical implications. New York: The Guilford Press.
Chaiton, M., Diemert, L., Cohen, J., Bondy, S., Selby, P., Philipneri, A., et al. (2016). Estimating the number of quit attempts it takes to quit smoking successfully in a longitudinal cohort of smokers. British Medical Journal, 6(6).
Kelly, J., Greene, M., Bergman, B., White, W., & Hopper, B. (2019). How many recovery attempts does it take to successfully resolve an alcohol or drug problem? Estimates and correlates from a national study of recovering US adults. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2019 Jul;43(7):1533-1544. doi: 10.1111/acer.14067. Epub 2019 May 15. PMID: 31090945; PMCID: PMC6602820.