Force of habit
How to put resolutions into action permanently
Resolutions like quitting smoking, losing weight or exercising more are quick to make. But why is it so difficult for our clients to permanently implement these resolutions? Why do they so often revert to their old behavioural patterns so soon?
Habits are behaviours we practice regularly in a stable context, without having to think about them or weighing the options. Most of the time, these behaviours are based on decisions we used to make consciously. Approximately 30 to 50 per cent of our daily actions are determined by habits. Habits have a big impact on our lives. Ultimately, our brain uses habits to save energy, which can be used for other, more important things. Besides habits such as going running in the morning, it’s usually bad habits such as the after-work beer that govern our everyday life.
To establish a new habit, the desired target behaviour should be linked to a clear trigger and reinforced by a reward. Running shoes deposited right next to the bed at night, for example, could serve as the trigger for the target behaviour of going on a run the next morning. At first, this must be done deliberately. The goal is for our brain to later connect the act of waking up and perceiving the running shoes with jogging, leading to automatic action. Such automation usually only works if some kind of desire is created. This, in turn, requires a reward. A long-term goal, like being in shape next summer, isn’t enough. The reward must be precise and immediate, like a warm shower or a post-run coffee.
But what must happen so we’re able to maintain resolutions for the long term while discarding bad habits that damage our health? The Health Action Process Approach model by Ralf Schwarzer (HAPA, 1992) offers an approach that helps us to illuminate and better understand the process of behavioural change.
According to Schwarzer, the initiation, execution and maintenance of a desired health behaviour (e.g. more exercise) is divided into two phases: a motivational and a volitional (i.e. determined by will) one. The first step is to pass through the motivational phase – a phase that’s characterised by the constant weighing of the pros and cons of the change in behaviour. People who would like to exercise more go through a kind of motivational conflict: on the one hand, they hope doing so will improve the state of their health, but they’re also aware that they’ll have less time for friends and family if they exercise three times a week. Also influencing the decision to exercise more are fears and worries. Many people are afraid, e.g., that health-damaging behaviour and inactivity increase the risk for chronic diseases such as diabetes. Finally, considering our own physical abilities, we worry whether frequent jogging or cycling is really something that can be implemented. People who are convinced they can bring themselves to go running three times a week even in bad weather oftentimes reach the decision that they actually want to change their behaviour faster than people who are not convinced of their abilities.
At the end of the day, these thoughts and considerations of one’s own abilities and risks as well as of the individual pros and cons of the behavioural change lead to the making of a resolution, coming to a decision or setting of a goal. This goal marks the end of the motivational phase, which is followed by the volitional phase.
Planning the behaviour
Often, goal setting is not enough to reach the desired target state. Whether the goal can actually be successfully implemented, says Schwarzer, largely depends on a person’s willpower and self-regulating abilities.
The second, or volitional, phase is mostly about planning the target behaviour in the format of if-then plans, as specifically as possible, then shielding or protecting it from temptations, excuses and other barriers. Classic New Year’s resolutions often lack such precise planning and specification. If-then plans look like this: “If Situation A occurs, then I want to perform Behaviour B.” That means a goal is formulated first (motivational phase), and then an if-then plan is put together (volitional phase) in order to support the realisation of the goal. If-then plans are thus a technique for determining the realisation of the target behaviour as well as a favourable situation (trigger) for using this behaviour. If-then plans support the realisation of the goal by determining when, where and how the goal is supposed to be achieved. Here’s an example of an if-then plan: “Every Monday evening at 5 pm I’d like to go jogging with my dog in the city forest.” Linking the anticipated situation (Monday evening 5 pm) with a goal-promoting behaviour (jogging in the city forest) means that control over the behaviour is handed over to the specific situation. This automates the action such that the situation, as soon as it occurs, automatically triggers the behaviour. The actors who’ve made a plan for themselves don’t have to consciously weigh the options first to make sure the planned goal-promoting behaviour is actually implemented when the specific situation occurs; instead, they’ll think of jogging right away when it’s 5 pm on Monday evening.
Considering unexpected events
Even though if-then plans are a sensible and effective measure to realise set goals, it should be considered – specific planning notwithstanding – that unexpected events can get in the way. It might rain on Monday evening, for instance, or it might be a best friend’s birthday. Instead of losing sight of one’s goals because of such eventualities, the thing to do is to make so-called coping plans. They, too, can be created in the if-then format: “If it rains at 5 pm on Monday evening, then, instead of jogging in the city forest, I’ll switch to the nearby public pool or I’ll move my run in the city forest to Tuesday evening.”
Shielding the behaviour
As soon as the target behaviour has been initiated, it should be protected and shielded from temptations and obstacles. The belief that the behaviour can be implemented even if difficulties or barriers arise plays an important role. If one is convinced that the goal can still be achieved despite rain or a birthday by switching to the pool or running the next day, then it’s more likely that the target behaviour can indeed be maintained. What can you do as a trainer here in order to support your clients in regard to their goals and wishes?
Creating personal meaning by weighing the options
For customers who often lose sight of their resolutions it’s advisable to find out together what’s important to them, what they would like to achieve and to what extent they could imagine that the desired target behaviour could help them to achieve their goals faster. If a customer mentions, for example, that he or she was assigned to a new job position with lots of responsibility, then an obvious step would be to sit down together to consider the extent to which exercise might help to deal with the new responsibility and extra stress. Such open questions get customers to actively think about exercise and its role/function. Reflecting like that often helps them to assign a new meaning to exercise. Rather than just thinking about concerns, the positive features of exercise should also be considered. Weighing factors in this way can help to create a significant personal connection between the behaviour and the customers’ goals, which ideally ensures that an intention or a behavioural goal is set.
Setting goals with the SMART model
In order to actually implement goals like “I want to exercise more”, the target behaviour should first be precisely spelled out. The SMART model (specific, measurable, attractive, realistic, time-specific) offers helpful guidance to do just that. In the beginning, the goal should be phrased as specifically as possible. If one wants to do more sport, the goal should include when, where and which sport. The motivation – i.e. the why – should also be examined. Furthermore, the goal should be measurable so the actor can recognise when the goal has been reached. Possible indicators include the weekly exercise frequency or the length of the run. What’s more, the goal should be attractive. For example, if the exercise boost results in less back pain or more vitality, or if jogging can be organised and combined with friends, then the goal becomes more attractive. To prevent failures, frustrations and discontinuations of the target behaviour, it’s also important to keep the goal realistic. Goals shouldn’t be too ambitious, and they should correspond to everyone’s respective level of fitness. Last but not least, a timeline should be set for the goal. By when should the desired goal be achieved? Can intermediate goals be formulated? In addition to the aspects of the SMART model, it’s also key to phrase goals positively. Rather than “I want to have less back pain”, the goal should contain a positive message: “I want to exercise three times a week.” The specific phrasing of the goal can now be included in concrete if-then plans.
Strengthening the belief in our own abilities
Believing in one’s own ability to perform a behaviour even if unexpected barriers or obstacles (such as bad weather, injuries or stress at work) arise isn’t just a significant factor when it comes to shielding the behaviour from temptations and obstacles but also during the entire behavioural-change process. These convictions can be strengthened by the following behaviours, among others:
Creating an awareness of one’s own successful previous experiences
Successfully coping or overcoming a difficult situation (going to the pool instead of jogging if it rains) strengthens the belief in one’s own ability to muster up the trust to be able to master difficult situations again in future. By contrast, failing to master difficult situations can lead to people looking for the cause of the failure in their own incompetence, which causes them to avoid comparable situations. People who regularly used to go jogging in the park years ago can draw on this previous experience, making it easier for them to imagine that they’d soon be regularly jogging again than it is for people who’ve never had that experience.
Representative experiences of success
That said, people without any previous jogging experience can imitate the behaviour by taking their cues from people with similar abilities and characteristics (age, gender, fitness status) who are able, for example, to run regularly. If people we identify with master the desired behaviour, then we’re more likely to trust ourselves to also be able to master it.
People who are trusted and encouraged to master a certain behaviour are more likely to belief they can master behaviours than people whose skills are being doubted. However, it’s important to keep challenges realistic. Likewise, small steps to success should also be positively reinforced and brought into the light of consciousness by the trainer.
Implementation is tough
Implementing good intentions is demanding and, besides precise planning, requires lots of time. A study in the UK (Lally, Van Jaarsveld, Potts & Wardle, 2010) found that it takes 66 days of repetition before a behaviour becomes a habit. That said, the exact time depends on the complexity of the behaviour. What’s certain, though, is that a behaviour can become a habit through repeated execution, a trigger and concrete planning. That said, it’s still important to remember that less often is more. Instead of exercising every day and trying to completely change one’s life at once, it’s worth thinking about the areas in which behavioural change might come easiest. Only then should one move forward in a step-by-step fashion, thus minimising failures and creating a sense of achievement.
Laura Himmelskamp (B.A.) Research Assistant at the Institute of Psychology at the German Sport University Cologne and a future sports psychology expert. Her main interest is health psychology.
Dr. Anna Wasserkampf | Research Fellow at the Institute of Psychology at the German Sport University Cologne. Her research profile includes motivational predicators of behaviour in exercise and sport and the process of behavioural change in general.