Should You Create New Habits in 2022?
Are Habits Really all That?
Are habits the compound interest of self-improvement? Is it important to set new habit goals for the new year? These may be a few of the questions being raised in your mind at the doors of 2022.
If I'm being honest, the universe of information and "teachable" topics may be perplexing at times. In reality, it's chock-full of contradicting and convoluted information. Is it true that meat is good for you? Is it likely to cause cancer? The self-help business is one to be careful of in general. Not always, but a lot of the time. In other words, although many books and articles are based on research and make appropriate claims, others are focused on selling unsubstantiated notions that seem compelling and desired (e.g., How to Become a Millionaire in Two Months!) but may be nothing more than, well, scams at the end of the day.
Every year, millions of dollars are likely produced by disseminating knowledge on habit formation and maintenance.
Some famous examples of books about habits include
- Atomic Habits by James Clear
- 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven R. Covey
- The Power of Habits by Charles Duhigg
But are these researched and supported? Is the information around “effective habits” credible, trustworthy? Often yes.
A great volume of research renders habits as highly effective determinants of successful behavioural change. Meaning, when it comes to setting goals, growing, and improving, habits represent more than useful tools to achieve success.
Keeping this in mind, we’ll investigate how this is possible by looking at:
- goal motivation
- goal setting
- goal implementation / if-then plans and habit formation
Being motivated to change
Motivation is important, but not a necessary predeterminant of change. In fact, given the right amount of knowledge and nudges, we can all be persuaded that change is needed.
However, motivation alone often does not predict success. When how much you are motivated to change does predict change, is oftentimes due to other factors such as self-efficacy. Self-efficacy refers to the belief that we are indeed capable of making a change, either because of inner strength or because we know from experience. For example, if I know that when I was in my early 20s I set the goal of running twice a week and done it, I will be likely to believe that I will be able to go for a run every other day now that I’m older.
Many barriers may come in the way between us and our goals. We may find it difficult to start or seize the right moment to start. We may get derailed by people (enablers), or situations that make the goal difficult (for example a group of friends smoking together while you’re trying to quit). Additionally, we may be super tired (overextending ourselves, burnout, etc) and not able to focus on one or more goals. We are human after all.
Motivation is important to begin at looking towards a goal-related successful future, but it cannot be the only thing driving us.
Setting the goal
When we have a target in mind, is always useful to put it down in words. It makes it real, concrete, and tangible.
One way that is often advised to set goals, is to think of them as S.M.A.R.T. Specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.
Specific: be specific about what is it exactly that you want to accomplish. Similarly to the need for goals to be measurable, we do not want them to be abstract. Therefore, your goal should not be “be healthy” “become a writer”, but “go for runs!”, “finish a book”.
Measurable: determine a measurable metric for monitoring your goal, or to be able to review it. Therefore, following the previous examples, we may set “run twice a week”, “write at least 2 pages a day”, etc…
Attainable: your goal/habit has to be possible. Some of us may have the goal to travel space once a month, but unless we are Bezos, it is unlikely. Common sense will be of help here but also knowing what skills could be learned. “The goal is meant to inspire motivation, not discouragement”.
Relevant: your goals/habits must make sense in relation to the wider goal and values. If I intend to become healthier, it has no worth it for me to set the habit of networking for business every day. But, if my general value is health, it makes sense to decide to start running, avoiding processed foods, or else.
Time-bound: what’s a realistic deadline for your goal? When should you revisit your habit formation to see if you were successful? Here common sense is also a must. Also, it may seem like this point is not crucial to success, but it is. It keeps us accountable, motivated, and makes the goal more “visible” since we can “see” the finish line (or more like revision line).
Implementation and habit formation ~ If-Then
Given the fact that motivation alone usually does not guarantee successful habit formation and goal success, spelling out a precise plan (where, when, how) about how we are going to implement new behaviours might help us hit the target at its centre.
A validated way of implementing goals is presented as if-then plans.
If-then: these are plans that implement an action in response to a cue. The cue is the If of the dyad. The cue is set as a relevant situation (internal/emotional, or external/event) that will prompt a determinate response, which we refer to here as then. For example: If it’s 3 p.m. then I’ll go for a run. If I feel anxious, then I’ll breathe and still go on with what I need to do. If I’m home alone, then I’ll write, and so on.
There are several reasons why these are effective. For example, setting a cue for a response means that when the situation will present itself it will create a heightened activation of the response. Initially, this may take recognising the cue as an opportunity, and therefore initiating a response. With time, this type of behaviour and reaction will be automatic, or in other words, it will become a habit.
In regards to the barriers of achieving successful habits formation or goals, if-then plans could present themselves as a solution. Finding the right moment to start, or being reluctant, is aided by the cue-response prompt. What’s more, it may help people shield their desired behaviour from contextual problems such as tempting situations or enablers. For one, we might be prepared for this to occur, and set a relevant plan: if my friends invite me to drinks, I’ll ask them out for brunch instead. But also, it may shield from general distraction, as the response becomes strong and automatic. Finally, when our behaviours become habits, they do not necessitate as much mental energy as when they aren’t. This in turn helps us stay mentally fresh, and to leave space to accomplish other goals simultaneously without being burned out.
To summarise, we have had a look at how goals and habits are great tools for us to achieve the behaviour change we desire and be more aligned with our values and desires. Also, we now know how being motivated to change is important, but often not enough. Goal implementation and planning might be the best route to habit formation and positive life changes.
Much of the self-help industry has been focused on writing about habits. Despite many of the more famous authors and books being credible sources, remember to always do some research before buying into anything. Search the author, what are their skills? Their credentials? And search the books. What do the critics say about them?
Of course, every theory has its limitations. Goal and habit formation will have some too. Some habits may become so rigid, that they start to interfere with other goals, or, we may fail to notice when they require change. Other habits instead may be negative, and difficult to break (think smoking and other addictions). Finally, they may not work at the same rate and with the same strength for every individual, or every goal.
However, as far as we know, habits, if-then plans, and more generally implementing goals may be the very best route to take on our journey to growth and change.