This is How to Stick to Your Habits, Backed by Research

Last week, I published an article about how to stop sucking at your habits.

In short, it explained how relying too much on your initial plan for your habit is a big mistake.

I got some great feedback on that article and it seems like a lot of people can relate to the problem.

One of the readers who got back to me was Sarah.

She wanted my next article to be about specific ways to tweak your plan to make it easier to stick to your habits.

A great idea! Let’s begin with…

An Analogy of the Mind

Psychologists tell us that there are two systems in our brains — the rational system and the emotional system.

In his awesome book, The Happiness Hypothesis 1, author Jonathan Haidt explains that you can think about these systems as a human rider on top of an elephant.

The rider represents the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This is the rational part of us that plans and problem-solves. The rider is the one making the decisions about where we want to go.

The elephant represents the older parts deep inside the human brain, such as the amygdala. This is emotional side of us. The elephant provides the power for our journey.

Authors Dan and Chip Heath later elaborated on this model in their book, Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard 2. They added a third component to the model which represents the path that the elephant and the rider are traveling. This can be thought of as an environmental part of the analogy.

The Rider, The Elephant & The Path

With all these components in place the complete picture looks something like this:

stick to your habits

It should be fairly obvious to us what the problem is here. If this huge elephant has a different opinion than the tiny rider about where to go, guess who’s going to get to decide?

The rider can try to convince (or push) the elephant all he wants but in the end it’s the elephant who is going to choose where they go.

This is a big part of why it’s so hard to adopt new habits. We can try to rationalize our way into a particular behavior, but it’s useless if the emotional side of us doesn’t agree.

Another common issue is the path. If the rider and the elephant are going to get your desired destination, you can’t have a bunch of distractions along the road they’re traveling. You need to clear their path.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s look at all these components individually.

The Rider

The rider may be small compared to the elephant, but he’s pretty damn awesome at planning the route — IF he’s been given a good map to work with.

Most of us give the rider very vague instructions. If you want your rider to lead your elephant effectively, statements like “I’ll exercise sometime this week,” “I’ll call mom when I get a chance,” or “I’ll start eating healthy soon” won’t cut it.

The rider wants specific and measurable targets:

  • I’ll exercise at 6 pm on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at the gym.
  • I’ll call mom from home on Saturday after breakfast.
  • I’ll add one vegetable to each dinner this week.

In other words, you need to mark down a big fat red X at the exact spot on the map where you want the rider to lead the elephant.

Two effective strategies for doing this are scheduling and implementation intentions.

The Elephant

The elephant doesn’t care much for rational planning. He does what he feels like doing. So, what you need to do is provide the elephant with enough motivation to take the rider in the right direction.

Here are some practical strategies for motivating your elephant:

The Path

The path represents the physical environment where the habit takes place. For the rider and elephant to travel smoothly, you need to:

Make the desired path as easy as possible.
Ask yourself how you can alter your environment to make your habit as effortless as possible. You want your elephant to stick to your desired path by default.

For example, if you want to read more books, make sure to always have a great book right next to your living room couch.

Make undesired path as hard as possible.
The elephant is going to be tempted to stray off course onto alternative paths along the way. Especially if they contain some sort of immediate gratification. To avoid this, you need to make these roads as unappealing as possible.

If your elephant typically prefers watching TV instead of reading the book, then put the TV remote in another room. Make the undesired path uncomfortable enough that the elephant stays on the right track.

How to Stick to Your Habits, In Summary

  • “The Rider, The Elephant, and The Path” is a very useful analogy in behavior change.
  • The Rider represents the rational part of your mind that plans the journey. He needs specific and measurable targets to guide the elephant. This can be done by using scheduling or implementation intentions.
  • The Path represents your environment. To travel effortlessly, the rider and elephant need the desired path to be as easy as possible, and undesired paths to be as hard as possible.

Improve your map. Motivate your elephant. Clear the path. Then get moving. And whenever you get stuck, simply repeat and refine these steps until the rider and the elephant reach their destination.

Oh, and if you have an idea for an article you’d like me to write, I’d love to hear about it. 🙂

Sources

  1. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt
  2. Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Dan Heath & Chip Heath

Image courtesy of Joel Lindmark (Society6).

A special thanks to…

Sarah, for the inspiration to this article.