Setting goals is easy but achieving them is hard. Why is this the case? Well, it’s all about reward. Take speeding, for example. Most people admit to breaking the speed limit. We struggle to control our speed, even though we know we should. If we’re honest, that’s because we value getting to our destination quickly, more than we value obeying the law.
A city in Sweden had a novel approach to dealing with this problem. To encourage people to drive at the speed limit, they installed a speed camera which automatically entered every car which drove under the speed limit into a lottery (1). The lottery prize was the fines from the speeding motorists. In the test, it reduced speeds by 22%.
The problem with new habit formation is that old behaviour is rewarded, and new behaviour has not been rewarded yet, so we feel less motivated.
It’s not about self-control
We end up beating ourselves up for not having enough control, but often it’s because we don’t understand the system. Habit formation is a dopamine-driven reinforcement learning cycle. This characteristic makes habit formation amenable to gamification – solving problems by applying elements from games.
It’s about reward
Dopamine levels in our brain rise in anticipation of a reward, which increases our motivation to act.
If we learn how to generate this anticipation reliably, we can increase the likelihood that we can successfully build new habits.
Charles Duhigg, one of the most well-known habit-formation authors, suggests that habit formation always progresses through four stages: cue, craving, response, and reward (2).
For example, a notification popping up on your phone is a cue. The desire to read the contents is the craving. Your response is to pick up your phone. You satisfy the craving by reading the message; then the cycle repeats when the phone buzzes again.
The four laws of habit formation
James Clear, another highly respected author in the habit-formation field, operationalized Duhigg’s steps as four ‘laws’ (3).
Law 1: Make it obvious
Define a specific action that you can take that will support your habit. For example, if you want to improve your sleep, keep your charger plugged in outside of your bedroom, so you’re less inclined to take your phone to bed.
Law 2: Make it attractive
Trigger your dopamine-driven reinforcement learning cycle by linking an action you need to take with an action that you want to take. The WOOP framework provide some ideas about how to apply this.
Law 3: Make it easy
Choose the smallest, most simple step you can take, to build momentum for your new habit. If you want to exercise five times per week, start by committing to take a walk for ten minutes per day.
Law 4: Make it satisfying
Wherever possible, try to create quick wins. For example, logging your new behaviours on your wearable smartphone app can provide an instant sense of achievement.
If you put these laws into practice, you’ll quickly associate the new behaviours with a sense of reward. Over time, you reinforce the learning cycle, and you’ll be on track to build new habits to support your wellbeing and your performance.
1) Sorell, C (2010) Swedish Speed-Camera Pays Drivers to Slow Down. Wired. Available from: https://www.wired.com/2010/12/swedish-speed-camera-pays-drivers-to-slow-down/
2) Duhigg, C. (2012) The Power of Habit. William Heinemann. London.
3) Clear, J. (2018) Atomic Habits. Avery. New York