Replacing old habits with new behaviours

Many of us look to change our behaviours through setting goals: losing weight, getting fit, reading more.

Setting goals is a great start to developing new and more desirable behaviours, but committing to actions that will achieve them can be a little more challenging. The more we procrastinate, the harder it becomes, and we revert to the same old habits that result in precisely the behaviours we sought to address by setting our goals. Research indicates we only do what we say we will do 50 per cent of the time.

Harnessing the if/then strategy

Of course, there are sometimes good reasons why we don’t do what we say we will do – we run out of time, energy, motivation, and so on. So, it is important to set realistic goals and to plan effectively for their achievement.

That said, overthinking what we need to do can hinder our progress – sometimes we need to just do it.  This is where a simple stimulus/response loop can help. This process is sometimes called if/then planning: if x happens then I will do y. If it is morning tea time I will eat fruit. If it is a Monday, Wednesday or Saturday I will go the gym. If it is 9pm on a weeknight I will read before bedtime.

The if/then association creates a neural link that promotes the likelihood of acting upon our commitments. In fact, Harvard Business Review has published research identifying that people who use if/then planning are three times more likely to achieve their goals.

'If' becomes a trigger for action that creates new habits. The challenge is to choose appropriate replacement habits – ones that will effectively move us towards attaining our goals.

Now this takes a little thought – the replacement habits must be sustainable over time to ensure that they do, in fact, become habit. This does not mean, however, that the new behaviour cannot be modified over time to enhance goal attainment.

Break it down 

By making incremental changes to our behaviour over time, we increase our motivation to continue and are more likely to achieve more holistic change. If, for example, you have a goal to run a marathon, you would be unlikely to begin your new training habit with a 42.195km run! Instead, you may follow a program that increases in intensity over time, to ease you into training, maintain your motivation and reduce the likelihood of injury.

Highly aspirational goals should to be broken down into sub-goals, with each sub-goal linked to actions, some of which could be enhanced through if/then planning.

In summary, setting goals alone will not result in behaviour change. Current behaviours often need to be replaced with new behaviours to achieve a goal.

Creating a stimulus/response (if/then) loop which triggers the regular practice of new goal-oriented behaviours can increase the likelihood of them becoming habit.

What are you waiting for?! Try it for yourself – it is simple, but effective.

And, remember, you run a marathon one step at a time!