Written by:  Elissa Wurf
“We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence is not an act, but a habit.”  
Will Durant, summarizing a key idea from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

This final post in our blog series on goals will address creating new habits, the way you can ensure accomplishing your goals becomes effortless.  For our first blog on Setting Goals, click here; for our second blog on Tactics for Accomplishing Goals, click here.

Through his popular book Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman has brought the terms System One and System Two into popular culture.  They refer to the processing of information and the resulting behavior.  System One refers to automatic processing, which is effortless, nonconscious, and easy.  For an example of a System One task, try saying the alphabet as quickly as you can.  Easy, right?  Now try saying it backwards as quickly as you can.  System Two refers to controlled processing, which is what we use when we learn new behaviors.  But eventually those behaviors become automatic too.  Think about driving and carrying on a conversation.  Easy again, right?  But what about when your usual route is blocked, or there is an accident and traffic narrows and gets congested?  We need to switch back to controlled processing mode in those situations and carrying on a casual conversation when you do so becomes much more difficult.

Habits make use of automatic processing, and in today’s world can also make use of technology.  Creating a habit takes some effort, but then automatic processing takes over and the habit becomes much easier.  BJ Fogg created a Behavior Model, which is one of the most comprehensive works on habit formation in the theoretical literature, and Charles Duhigg popularized the importance of habits in his book The Power of Habit.  Fogg’s Behavior Model states that “three elements must converge at the same moment for a behavior to occur:  motivation, ability, and trigger.  When a behavior does not occur, at least one of those three elements is missing.”

There are three major categories of motivations.  The first is sensation, or creating pleasure instead of pain; the second is anticipation, or feeling hope instead of fear; and the third is belonging, or being socially accepted instead of rejected.  Fogg suggests that motivation occurs in “waves” – “when motivation is high, you can get people to do hard things.  But once it drops (the wave subsides), then people will only do easy things.”  So the idea is that when your motivation is high, you first do hard things that will structure future behavior, such as implementing a technological solution that automatically helps with your behavior goal, like scheduling an extra monthly contribution to your savings account.  Next, you do hard things that will reduce barriers to future behavior, such as batch cooking on a weekend day to make it easier to eat healthy during the week.  Finally, use a high motivation period to increase your capability.  For example, master a more difficult recipe when you are motivated so that next time it is easier to make.

For ability, the aim is to make target behaviors (routines) simpler or easier to do – requiring less time, money, physical or mental effort, or deviation from what others are doing or from what one has done in the past.  What is simple is a function of perception, and our perceptions differ across people and over situations.  A key point about simplicity is that it is a function of our scarcest resource at the moment.  For example, it might be simple for a retiree to prepare meals daily because they have available the resource of time, but simple for a working person to subscribe to a meal preparation or meal delivery service, since they might have more money than time available.  So, in plotting a strategy to make behaviors easier, consider what resources you have at a point in time and make trade-offs between resources that you have (e.g., money) to get more resources that you don’t have (e.g., time).

Triggers are things that cue people to “do it now.”  A trigger can be something external like an alarm or just an aspect of the situation itself, like seeing a jogger while driving home and being reminded that you need to get to the gym.  In trying to create habits, we can add triggers to our environment that will help, such as setting a banana out on the counter before you go to work in the morning, which prompts you to eat a healthy snack or dinner when you get home.

Successfully forming habits is just another way to help you accomplish your goals.  Taking advantage of automatic processing and the technology solutions available today will help make difficult behaviors easy.  It will take some effort, but once a habit is formed it is difficult to break and will keep you on a long-term track to success!