Humans are creatures of habit, and that’s terrible. Because nothing is harder than changing habits. Anyone who has tried knows how often you fail. Psychologists estimate that only 8 percent of people who strive for change in themselves achieve it after a year.
With this number in your head, you would like to give up immediately: It doesn’t matter if you have made less stress, and more time for the family. Lose weight, exercise more, less chaos, or limit digital sensory overload. Only an eight percent success rate? Oh come on, demotivated, I sink onto the sofa and do what I always do. Or would you rather not give up? Psychology knows many tips that demonstrably increase the probability of success. I have summarized them into 8 steps that help me enormously. Here is the overview:
Step 1 in changing habits: analyze failures, improve chances of success
Apparently, almost everyone who wants to change habits has to accept setbacks. Once you are aware of this, you can swing onto the road to success. I experienced this myself when I was trying to learn to jog. For years I thought I would never make it. But if you change your strategy with every new attempt, you’ll eventually succeed.
Because: From an analysis of failure you can learn how to do it better next time. Every setback needs to be evaluated so that you don’t get stuck at the same hurdle the next time you try. That increases the chances. The psychologist and head of the IFT health promotion, Christoph Kröger, stated on the subject of smoking cessation: “The chance of success increases with the number of attempts.”
Not giving up, trying again and again, will eventually bring you to your goal of permanently changing one or more habits. Or, as my favorite quote puts it: “Opportunities are like buses, there’s always another one coming.” (Richard Branson, founder of the record label Virgin).
Step 2: Understand habits
In order to be able to change your strategy with each attempt, you must first understand what a habit is and how it works.
The human brain is designed to use automated action patterns whenever possible. We need a coffee mug, so without a second thought we reach into the kitchen cupboard where it always stands. We only become aware of such a routine when it doesn’t work – for example, because Sohnemann sorted the cups incorrectly after washing the dishes.
Habits save energy, that’s why they’re so persistent
Why does the brain work this way? Quite simply: It saves energy. For example, once rats know their way through a maze, fewer brain areas are active than when they first have to learn the way. The areas that are responsible for complex thought processes and decisions then have a break. Only the basal ganglia have to work, these are nerve nuclei in the brain that store familiar movement patterns.
Habits make it possible for us to cope with everyday life without going crazy. Otherwise, we would have to think about every little thing and constantly question our actions. Nobody could stand that in the long run. Routines and rituals also create familiarity, we feel safe with them. Last but not least, they save time – our brain, which does not have to use any nerve tracts, and our conscious self. For example, sorting e-mails is much faster if you always do it according to the same scheme.
Step 3: Recognize the triggers of an unwelcome habit
The crucial thing about a habit is that it is always triggered by a certain situation and then runs off all by itself, i.e. unconsciously.
Coming home, turning on the computer, lounging in the armchair, and watching a favorite series. It works like sleeping. On the other hand, it is exhausting to stop the habitual program once it has started and go for a jog instead of binge-watching.
Step 4: Find the hidden gain behind a bad habit
This is where the second key point about a habit comes in: it always offers the lazy self a quick win. Even if it’s just momentary convenience. There are, of course, very different types of advantages: In the smoker, after a dose of nicotine, the addiction center is quiet again for a while. Stuffing down half a bar of chocolate will take your mind off the bad day you’re having for ten minutes. Half an hour later you feel miserable – but first, there was a small, quick kick of joy.
This is why behaviors that we have suffered from for a long time stick stubbornly to us. In fact, many of the bad habits we whine about do something crucial for us: They save us from having to think about the underlying causes of certain problems. “Something about our own misery seems to be so essential that you just can’t get rid of it,” said educator Rolf Arnold in the journal Psychology Today.
Up to 50 percent of our actions are out of habit
All in all, researchers estimate that 30 to 50 percent of our actions are determined by habits – i.e. by behavioral processes that bring us a quick reward without effort. No wonder it’s bloody hard to get rid of.
If you want to change habits, you must first ask yourself the following questions:
- What is the trigger for the behavior I don’t like about myself?
- How does the pattern typically work?
- what is my profit
Once you have the answers, you can set about replacing an old habit with a new, better one. Because that’s the only way it works: In the triggering situation, a new program has to run at some point that brings you a new advantage. If that works, you’ve made it.
Step 5: Eliminate the top 3 causes of stubborn setbacks
Every setback shows you that something in the chain is still wrong. What can it be? I have already dealt with the 3 most common reasons here in the blog post on the new beginning. You can learn a lot from this that will never happen a second time. For example, the matter of the right motivation, the right time or the specific resolution. During my jogging project, for example, I experienced how incredibly valuable concrete SMART goals are.
But sometimes you already have a very good idea of your new behavior pattern and you do everything right even with the 3 big sticking points – changing your habits still doesn’t work.
What can it be then?
Step 6: Don’t think too positively
You often suffer a setback in phases of euphoria. You’re happy that the first few days with your new, improved self went so well and you imagine how great it will be when the new job is found or when the annoying 10 kilos are down. Caution, warns the psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen, who teaches in New York and Hamburg. In her book “The Psychology of Success” she shows that positive thinking can be treacherous. It’s easy to lose sight of reality, that is, of the effort that is still needed for a new habit to become firmly established. Her insight: look at the obstacles! People who do this are better able to achieve individual goals.
Step 7: If-then plans for a crisis
Psychologist Peter Gollwitzer, with whom Gabriele Oettingen works a lot, discovered that the solution lies in so-called if-then plans. It’s about thinking carefully about what problems could be lurking on the path to change. Solutions are prepared for these situations. For example: If I get a craving for chocolate, I call a friend and talk to her about something nice until the crisis is over. Honestly, you need a lot of such if-then plans to change some habits. Because no one can avoid certain temptations. food for example. It is essential to life and we are lucky to have it in abundance. But what do you do when you want to lose weight? The only way to learn how to properly respond to this ongoing challenge is through a series of setbacks.
Step 8 in changing habits: Use a new strategy with each attempt
Setbacks have another great advantage: They create experiences and show that you are doing something and are not stuck with wishing and wanting. Because one danger for everyone who wants to change habits lies in using the search for motives and resistance as an excuse: According to the motto: “Oh no, it’s pointless to start a diet as long as I’m not sure why I actually do it got so fat.”
On the other hand, those who always rebel against setbacks – and try something new every time – have an advantage. Because Albert Einstein’s sentence applies: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” The brain only learns when you break new ground – and if you want to change a habit, you ultimately have to relearn it. Therefore: Never give up, always embark on a new path. At some point, it will be the right one. The one that leads to the dream goal.