What makes a habit stick?
As we begin a new decade, I’d like to plug cultivating the reading habit. Put down your phone. Pick up a book or a magazine. Focus.
We all know the arguments for reading.
It will expand your vocabulary, lengthen your attention span, maybe change your point of view. I haven’t even mentioned bringing you pleasure! It’s different than consuming news on tv. It’s different than listening to the radio or a podcast (and I do love podcasts!). Reading slowly engages the mind. There’s nothing passive about it.
But, let’s face it. All these reasons TO read won’t give you the reading bug. No New Year’s resolution alone will stick. So how do we make reading a habit when we know intellectually it’s good for us?
University of Southern California psychology professor Wendy Wood, has some ideas based on 30 years of research into habit-forming. I recently listened to a Hidden Brain podcast on this subject. Research supports what we already experience. How often we head to the gym, for example, depends on how long it takes us to get there. The longer the distance, the less we go. The more discordant mental friction, as she puts it, the less likely we will stick to a habit no matter our best intentions. Friction is the hassle factor but I suspect it’s also inertia too – it’s easier not to do something new or hard.
Habits are formed over time with repetition. According to Wood, habits are mental associations.
"When we repeat an action over and over again in a given context and then get a reward when you do that, you are learning very slowly and incrementally to associate that context with that behavior," she says.
For example, a bedtime story shared between parent and child becomes mentally associated with love and security. I still connect reading before bed with quiet comfort - a reassuring way to end my day.
I associate my meditation practice with my morning cup of coffee. At home I retreat upstairs with my coffee, sit in the morning light of the bedroom window, gaze outdoors (I live in the woods, which helps), and find stillness. The same time, the same place, the same warm beverage. It’s harder to stick to this when I’m travelling.
It’s interesting that habitual patterns in our body – shoulders slumped, head moved forward, lower back contracted – can be bad, leading to poor posture and back pain, for example. Yoga teaches us to unlearn bad habits and develop new ones. Awareness is key.
In Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick, Wood states that an astonishing 43% of our behavior is automatic. Our nonconscious mind prompts us to act almost half of the time.
If we truly want to follow through with our best intentions for 2020, we need to make them habitual and frictionless. For example, I’ve resolved to write daily for years! But this year is different (honest). I’m going to make writing a daily habit – take my intention and repeat it over and over again. Writing will become as habitual as brushing my teeth. Reading already is my daily flossing and I invite it to be yours.