This Weeks' Guest
Dr. Wendy Wood - Habit Hero
Professor Wendy Wood, Author/Professor/Habit Expert
My guest on this week's podcast is the provost professor of psychology and business and the University of Southern California (USC), Dr. Wendy Wood. Dr Wood has spent the majority of her career studying habits and human behaviour. She, literally, wrote the book on it. That book "Good Habits, Bad Habits" is an inspiring read on the science of Habit formation!
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Quotes of the Cast
We found that about 43% of the time, everyone almost uniform is repeating the behaviors that they have done in the past, in that location while they're thinking about something else, which is of course the beauty of a habit. That's automaticity, you don't have to think about it and make a decision about it. It just runs off on its own.
Professor of Psychology
People can identify habits. But when it comes down to it, most of us think, okay, I'll just make a decision and then I won't do it anymore. Or I'll make a decision and I'll form a new habit, or I really want to I'm highly motivated. So that motivation is going to translate into some habits, some new habit I'll form.
That's not the way it works at all. That's not the way our habit memories store information.
Professor of Psychology
People with high self control. We used to think that they did it by inhibiting all of the bad behaviors. By motivation by decision-making. And what we found instead is that they know how to form good habits. So they have figured out they're very good at alternating their behavior to reach their goals
Professor of Psychology
What You Will Learn
Here's some of the key lessons from the podcast with Dr. Wendy Wood
I had picked it up already having read "Good Habits, Bad Habits" twice, but the conversation with Dr Wood (whom very graciously corrected me when I kept calling her Dr Woods....embarrassing) really drove home to me how important context is in making habits and breaking habits. I was really interested in the science behind why willpower isn't an effective way to make a habit stick, and how the smarter option is to change your environment or context to remove certain cues. That goes against my nature, but apparently, not just mine, it goes against human nature and our desire to believe we're in control and have our own agency. It turns out the Dory from Finding Nemo really had the right idea with her mantra "Just Keep Swimming".
Transcript of the Full Interview with Professor Wendy Wood
The Habits Habit Podcast
The Habits Habit (Brian): It's almost embarrassing to start with such a basic question for a provost professor of psychology and business, but I'm sure you must get asked this question more than any other, like what is a habit?
Professor Wendy Wood: That's actually a smart question. It's not a silly one because we don't have access to our habits and the way they work in the same way that we do our thoughts and our feelings, our experiences, our beliefs. We can access those and evaluate them, think about them. But our habist actually actually work non-consciously they work outside of our awareness.
So it makes sense that people in fact wouldn't know a whole lot about how habits work So that said, let me give you a definition of habits and then I'll elaborate a bit. Habits form through action. So they don't, you can't make a decision to have a new habit. It doesn't work that way. Instead, habit memory ties together what you're doing in a particular context to get a reward. So it ties all of those pieces of information together, and it forms these little sort of shortcut associations between contexts and responses. They tie all the pieces together in memory so that you can easily repeat that behavior again and get that same reward.
And that's what's so functional about habits is they streamline our decision-making. So you dont have to wonder. My favorite example is, I get up in the morning and I just make coffee out of habit, and I don't have to wonder how am I going to do it, or do I really want coffee this morning? Instead I stand in front of the machine and I just do what I've done before.
And that generates the same reward as I've gotten in the past, which is I get a good cup of coffee.
The Habits Habit (Brian): What's interesting to me about this is there's a well there's loads, obviously that's interesting, but one of the things that's interesting is we all instinctively know what habits are in the sense that if you ask someone to name a good habit, or particularly if you ask someone to name a bad habit, they'll probably be able to say smoking or poor diet, or I don't know, picking your nose, like biting your nails.
So they know the end result of the habits, maybe rather than how it all works. And so one of the things that I'm most interested in what led me to do this podcast is the answer to this question, which is why should people care about habits and about knowing how habits work?
Professor Wendy Wood: Well, you're absolutely right.
That, we can all identify habits. We have, we see ourselves repeat behavior over and over, but the trick is, as you said, we don't know what causes them and that gets us into trouble because then we have behaviors that are being cued automatically that we may not want to engage in, or we might have new ones that we want to do.
There's a societal institution around this, which is new year's resolutions. We all form them. We form them knowing that the likelihood is we may not exactly meet the goals that we set for ourselves . Part of the reason why we don't meet them is because we don't understand how to form habits.
People can identify habits. But when it comes down to it, most of us think, okay, I'll just make a decision and then I won't do it anymore. Or I'll make a decision and I'll form a new habit, or I really want to I'm highly motivated. So that motivation is going to translate into some habits, some new habit Ill form.
That's not the way it works at all. That's not the way our habit memories store information.
The Habits Habit (Brian): I'm going to be running a course on this actually in December. And I'm going to be doing a show on national radio in Ireland and what I'm thinking of calling it and I don't know whether you think this is a good idea or not, effectively, I'm looking for some free tips from you now, I think, and. Instead of, so the term you would often hear, around new year's resolution is "new year new me" or "new year, new you", and I'm thinking of just saying "new year new habit" or "new year new habits" because. Yeah, there is no, new you, you're not going to create a new you certainly not in January but if you start right and try and start on the foundational habits that might lead towards whatever that goal is, maybe you'll make it through the first week of January without breaking your resolution.
Professor Wendy Wood: Exactly. I think the, trick to forming a new habit is to realize that you can't will it, you have to do it.
So you have to repeat behaviors in a regular way over and over so that you stamp in that habit memory, and you start to automate the behavior. Real habits when you actually form one, you don't have to think it's like me making coffee or we've studied people with running habits. They don't think about what they're doing.
They don't motivate themselves anymore. Instead very much the behavior has become routinized and automated so that the basics are there. They may have to tweak some parts of it. Each time they go running, depending on whether it's raining, whether it's hot or cold but the basic activity they have automated so that it becomes something they can do without struggle or thought. And that's the beauty of a habit.
The Habits Habit (Brian): I will put my cards on the table, when I started reading, your book and all the kinds of other books that go with it and really started looking into this, I was a little bit. I don't know in one way I was delighted. I felt like I'd found a missing piece of a jigsaw because, I've tried every productivity app, every to-do list app, every, Pomodoro, timings, getting things done, seven habits, the Eisenhower matrix, the full shooting match of, "getting better at stuff" and then when I read this, I was like, "Oh, I see where I've been going around for the last 40 years". And you think, why did no one, tell me about this stuff earlier. Why, didnt you tell us about this stuff. Why didn't you write this book 20 years ago is what I'm saying to you
Professor Wendy Wood: Theres a very good reason. And that is because we're only, research, psychological research neuroscience is only finally identifying the basis of habit, performance and habit memory.
We didn't have the tools to do it up until about oh a decade or so ago. So you weren't alone. Scientists didn't know either really how habits worked and that's only been revealed over time slowly. And in fact, that's why I wrote the book. Is there are, as you said, a lot of habit books out there, but I would look at them and they really didn't convey the research. They didn't convey what science knows about habit. And that's my intent in writing this book, "good habits, bad habits" is to actually explain to people how these things work, why they don't know this intuitively. And once they do understand how they work, then how do you take control of it? Because there's nothing worse than struggling constantly with a bad habit. We've all had them. We all know how uncomfortable that is.
The Habits Habit (Brian): There's a wonderful line in the book. I'll just read it out for anyone who hasn't read it, and then we might discuss it a little bit. You say: "habits come from repetition behavior begets behavior. There isn't a further, more complicated, rare, or special ingredient. That should be one of you liberating. That should make you optimistic. If you just keep doing it'll start happening with more and more ease. Make it easy for yourself. No style points".
There's a lot to to question about that and, and I will, so the first thing is that it probably it's, it comes from the title of your book, habits they're formed the same way, whether they're good or they're bad.
So I was thinking about this a lot in advance of this interview. and for me, if you have a bad habit, am I being too simplistic to say that is proof of itself, that you can create habits. And therefore, because they follow the same process, you can create good habits or you can create a better, more resourceful habit to replace that bad habit.
Do you follow what I mean, the fact of you having bad habits means you have whatever is needed to create a habit to begin with. And they are the same for good and bad. Is that's overly simplistic, probably?
Professor Wendy Wood: No, you're absolutely right. habits are a very simple learning system. All mammals learn to habits.
In fact, that's how we train our dogs, Is we try to help them. We cue them. We reward them to form particular habits. Everyone has habits and some of the first research I did in this area was to figure out, cause I thought some people seem to live more structured lives and others people seem to be more spontaneous.
So people differ and what percent of their behavior is a habit. So we followed people around. We beeeped them once an hour and we had them report on what they were thinking and doing, every hour. And we found that about 43% of the time, everyone almost uniform is repeating the behaviors that they have done in the past, in that location while they're thinking about something else, which is of course the beauty of a habit. That's automaticity, you don't have to think about it and make a decision about it. It just runs off on its own.
The Habits Habit (Brian): Doesnt that mean if you make that 43% good or better, or if you focus on that 43%, it's almost inevitable that, life will get better or you'll achieve whatever it is you want to achieve?
Professor Wendy Wood: Exactly. And that is what research has shown us in the last few years.
This is a very new finding, but it's one that's held up in a number of different studies that. People who have high self-control right. These are the people who, are high achievers. They are healthy. They have successful families, happy kids.
The Habits Habit (Brian): People like us, Wendy is what you're saying.
Professor Wendy Wood: Absolutely people with high self control.
We used to think that they did it by inhibiting all of the bad behaviors. By motivation by decision-making. And what we found instead is that they know how to form good habits. So they have figured out they're very good at alternating their behavior to reach their goals. They understand something about the process, whether we don't know, actually, whether they can tell us or whether it's more just intuitive understanding, but we see it in their behavior that they know how to structure the environments that they're in. They know how to repeat behaviors on a regular basis so that they end up forming habits that keep them healthy, make them productive, have happy relationships.
The Habits Habit (Brian): This is one of the things that I have been most fascinated about in your book and in the work generally, it's this concept of situational control and whether you call it environmental design or situation control or whatever it is, but it's, not going to the place where, your bad habbit is going to happen.
For example, if you take, for example, if every time you go to the shop, you buy something that you shouldn't, whether it's cigarettes or junk food or something like that.
That's your kind of trigger or cue and your response when you're there, whether you have a craving for those things or not. Something as simple as doing your shopping online so you're not passing the temptation at eye level or even just sending someone else to the shop would, is part of the process of breaking the bad habit if you like that, that idea of willpower being the way to do it's just fundamentally wrong.
Professor Wendy Wood: Yes. It's not how people who are successful at controlling their behavior actually do it. And I think part of the challenge with understanding this is that it all seems too simple, right? So you just remove yourself from that context and that will change your behavior.
It's something that, electronics companies. our phone manufacturers I-phones, social media websites, something that Amazon knows well, that if you make things difficult, you lose customers. So two clicks, slow loading page. You lose customers. You make it easy and you keep customers.
And as you alluded to in the store, in retail, there are sayings, like eye level is buy level, right? So whats at eye level is what you're likely to buy, which is why retailers put the really cheap stuff down at your feet. So you won't see it as readily and you'll be less likely to buy it. These things work.
They work in business and they also work in people's lives. Another reason that I wrote this book is to help people understand how to reverse engineer their environments, their living contexts, so that. they repeat behaviors that they want to and stop the hairdryers that are more problematic.
It's easy to do, but. It's not some, not necessarily the way people usually think about behavior change.
The Habits Habit (Brian): I would go one further in that there's something, and I'd be interested to know if this is your experience in a huge range of research that you don't or even just anecdotally is, it bothers me that. it's not willpower, we are taught that, strong willpower is a sign of character and stuff like this and little, I just, there's something that grinds with me that you're saying not you're saying, but that the right thing to do is make it easier by, just taking this out of the equation.
Let's just say it's a very personal example. I have a very sweet tooth, like two sweet. So when I do go to, a shop or a store, I will inevitably come out with too much junk food. Like just every single time it drives my wife bananas. And to think that the solution to that is just don't go to the shop or, don't go to those shops or whatever it is rather than having the willpower to not pick it up and put it in the trolley. Is that a universal thing that humans just don't like thinking we can't do it. So instead of, bashing through and keep going until you can do is just stop trying almost just move the goalposts.
Professor Wendy Wood: It is a matter of don't try and struggle. That's not going to get you very far with those sorts of temptations.
Yes, we see in the research I've done, we see people like to believe that they're in control of their behavior. We all like to believe in our own agency and if you start to think that the environments that you're in are that important. It challenges our views of ourselves and our own control over our behavior, but it's so evident.
It's so evident in economics, in the marketplace. My current favorite study, I'll tell you about it which sort of underscores this, the point that you're making, it was a, it's an old study. It was done to try to get people in an office, building to take the stairs and not use the elevator. It's good for their health.
It's good for the environment. So the researchers put up a bunch of signs all around the elevator. Don't. Don't take the elevator, take the stairs. Good for your health. No effect. So what they did is they decided what they do is a radical intervention. They'd slow the closing of the elevator door by 16 seconds. That stopped a third of the elevator trips and made people start taking the stairs.
And they did this for a month and this is just simple friction, right? The door closed, it just took a little bit longer. And that's enough to discourage people from taking the elevator and instead it set them taking the stairs. And the lovely thing about the study is, when they put the elevator back to speed, four weeks later, people kept taking the stairs because they'd formed a habit to do it.
And they weren't going to fuss with that inconsistent elevator anymore. They decided they were just going to stick with the stairs and they did. They followed their habits. It's something to keep in mind. Sometimes behavior change doesn't involve convincing yourself of doing the right thing.
Sometimes it just involves making it easier to do the right thing. Yes., don't walk down those aisles in the grocery store. Start practicing going down the produce aisle and the dairy aisle and the bread aisle, and then leave all of the sweets and chips and stuff. That's not an aisle you go down and if you don't go down it, you won't be tempted and you won't pick things up
The Habits Habit (Brian): I'll tell you what, we'll start that next week Wendy alright?,Maybe. I don't know. I don't know if I'm ready just yet. You can see that I'm not an ideal subject for these good habits. That's part of the reason I had to start the podcast to mine the knowledge from people like your good self.
Persistency and consistency, then, is paramount. is that fair to say?
Professor Wendy Wood: Yes. That's what your habit memory picks up. Habit memories pick up repeated experiences. So your consistent behavior over time is, connected to the contexts in which you are doing the behavior. And over time that forms into a strong habit, but it's really the repetition that's critical.
The Habits Habit (Brian): I'm curious then, because one of the most search for terms around habits and I'll come onto search terms in a bit because you talk about it in your book in terms of the number of books that have the word habit in it is on the rise dramatically and also the wide range of pseudoscience that's out there if you Google habits of high achievers and habits of success and habits of happiness, but one of the, one of the, Terms that is searched the most is habit tracker. And I just, I did a search through your book. I just noticed that you don't mention a habit tracker or the act of habit tracking or, mark a big X on the calendar or any of these kinds of techniques.
Is that because the science doesn't support this or it just didn't get included in the book. Is this an omission by design?
Professor Wendy Wood: Habit tracking is not going to help you form a habit, in the sense that your habit memory doesn't care whether you've tracked the behavior or not. Your habit memory depends upon what you've done.
So this is a challenge, I think for many apps where you can buy apps that promise to help you develop a habit. They help you think and keep track of your behavior. Most of them are trackers. Some of them are planners help you set goals. But they don't actually help you form a habit. So that's part of the irony of most behavior change apps, right now. They're really good at short-term change. They are good at changing our thoughts and our goals. Not so much our behavior,
The Habits Habit (Brian): Because one doesn't necessarily follow the other.
Professor Wendy Wood: Exactly. Yes. Yes. Your recognition understanding of your behavior is a separate memory system from the habit memories that you're trying to create.
And that's it's a, it's a weird idea for many of us, but our brains are not a single unified whole. They're not just one thing. Instead, they're made up of a bunch of interconnected networks and the habit memory network is only connected, it's integrated with our thinking feeling selves, but it's not the same as, and can't be guided directly you can't form habit memories by thinking certain things or by feeling certain things, or by putting a check mark on a calendar. Instead, the habit memory forms from repetition, the rewards you get for that repetition. And let's talk about rewards for a minute. Many people think that I'm putting an X on a calendar as a reward because you get to see all of those Xs, All in a row. And that's the way of congratulating yourself.
The Habits Habit (Brian): Yeah. You feel good because you haven't broken the chain or whatever
Professor Wendy Wood: Exactly. You've stuck with your streak. and it's a nice idea. It might motivate some people, but it's not the kind of reward that forms a habit. Habits form with immediate rewards. So they're ones that you experience as you're doing the behavior.
So if you want to start working out on a more regular basis, get yourself to exercise, then giving yourself a bonus at the end of the week, or, sending yourself putting positive, sticky notes up all over the place about, reminding yourself that you should do this. Those aren't going to help you form a habit necessarily because they're not rewards in the moment.
A reward in the moment is feeling good about what you're doing. I work out pretty regularly on an elliptical trainer, which is the most boring thing in the world. And I had a hard time doing it until I figured out. I can read trashy novels and watch stupid TV shows while I'm working out. And that has made the whole experience very positive.
I now enjoy it and I look forward to that part of my day it's formed into a very stable habits for me.
The Habits Habit (Brian): And I mean is feeling good, the most obvious reward that's the most obvious and common reward for good behavior or good habits, or even, sometimes when, if I could put it like this, when you're doing an exercise, for example, that you hate, but that, you know is not good for you.
The simple fact that you've done it, even though you don't want to do it. If I could, if we're looking at this on a conscious level, That typically makes me feel good. They say you never regret the work that you did. You always regret the work that you didn't do. So you're dragging this role and it's raining. It's miserable. You don't want to do it. You don't want to do it. And then once you've done it, you feel amazing because even though you didn't want to do as you did it, is that a reward?
Professor Wendy Wood: Of course. And so is pride in what you're doing. All of those and the good feeling you get. There's all kinds of endorphins and all sorts of things that happen to in our brains when we exercise, but it needs to happen when you do it.
It needs to be something that then I don't know what you do. Do you listen to podcasts? I used to run outside and I loved doing it because I got to be in nature. And I got to experience the day in a new way. That was immediately rewarding to me and helped to form a running habit.
The Habits Habit (Brian): Let's stick with the running habit for a minute because it brings us on to, something that you, say elsewhere in the book. "We repeatedly do the things we love, but we also grow to love the things that we repeatedly do. It's like an invisible feedback loop inside our heads. And, as you can imagine, this loop has something to do with our habits and it has a lot to do with our happiness". So sticking with running, when I started running. I hated it. Like I was like, this is miserable. This is grim. I'm not enjoying this at all. And then it did just reach a point where I loved the time alone, the Headspace, the feeling of achievement when you run a good time or when you're doing something well, and then I ran some half marathons and I was like, it just felt like I was at a different place or a different person from the person who was trudging around and mumbling and grumbling however many months earlier.
So I suppose do all habits that we really want, to, the extent that there's a connection between motivation or inspiration and habits, do they all eventually end up feeling good or being something that you despite yourself now enjoy? If you break through that tipping point effectively.
Professor Wendy Wood: You're right.
People like what is familiar, and particularly with exercise, there's many reasons why it becomes easier. Your body gets used to it, physically, your body adapts, your muscles adapt your muscles grow, you learn how to do it better. So there are many reasons why we start to enjoy exercise more the more often we do it. But that basic principle holds more broadly. You might not have a running habit. You might have a habit of coming home from work and sitting on the couch and watching TV. If you do it often enough, it becomes familiar and it becomes something that's sort of part of you, something you recognize, something you can anticipate, I guess it's rather boring if you actually think about it, but that familiarity has an appeal.
I'm a professor at a university and I always think it's funny. Watching students in the first day of class, they choose a seat and then the next time they come back, they almost invariably sit in the same seat and you ask them why and they're like, I don't know, I just chose it and I stuck with it. You get used to seeing the classroom from a certain perspective. It's worked in the past and you stick with it. We like what's familiar. We like what's usual. There's wonderful research on how this works with food, that particularly children, the more you introduce them to certain types of food, the more likely they are to eat it in the future.
And this works with. Grown-ups too. There've been studies where people have been asked to taste, test different fruits and vegetables for several weeks. And at the end of that time, they actually start choosing to include more fruits and vegetables in their own diet outside of the taste test, because we like, we grow to like what we're used to.
It's a very human phenomenon. And unfortunately, it reconciles us to our bad habits, as well as our good ones.
The Habits Habit (Brian): But, and so that again is where the, and the environmental design, eh, or however you want to describe it comes in. That you prepare to tackle that familiarity by putting your runners out or by making the running easier or either, or I think, or am I wrong?
You make it easier to do the ruin or you make it harder to sit on the couch and watch Netflix. So you introduce friction to try and stop it, or you've reduced friction to try and encourage us that so if you take your problem is sitting on the couch. When you come in from work and fix it on Netflix, it might be extreme but if you disconnect your Netflix account and put your owners in front of the front door, are you more likely to go for the room?
Professor Wendy Wood: That's a great example. And in fact, I have a son who is a, who is a bike racer and he is so motivated. He loves to race. And even he, when he gets home from work in the evening and he intends to train on his indoor bicycle trainer, if he hasn't set that up in his living room so that he has to physically move it out of the way in order to sit on the couch, even he ends up sitting on the couch because he's tired after work high levels of motivation, don't get you where you want to go. He always puts his bike trainer in the middle of the living room. He has to climb over to get to the couch and that has made it so that he is a very regular, he trains very regularly.
The Habits Habit (Brian): This ties in with something that you say as well in the book and it's directly applicable, I think in the sense that we're talking about it now. So what you say is, knowledge basically has nothing to do with it, Knowing what's good for you won't make you do is knowing all of these things won't make it, do it. What I'm interested in from your point of view is, let's just say, someone has read your book as I have, or someone's listening to this podcast as hopefully some people are, we now know. That motivation isn't going to work and that we need to rely on habits, but by almost your own definition, that's not going to be enough, right.?
Professor Wendy Wood: Yes. So we have to make the changes to make our environment support us. I think that in modern times we have ended up in context that don't actually allow us, don't make it easy to be healthy, to connect with people who support you to, be productive. We're constantly barraged with, social media disruptions with, fast food, too much food ,we drive instead of walking places, particularly in America. And all of those things make it challenging for us to have the right habits. and we know this. Most of us know this intellectually, but we don't really know how to shift. it. And you shift it through your environment through just what puts you in that situation. You reverse engineer it so that you can create an environment that allows you to live the kind of life you want
The Habits Habit (Brian): You mentioned, that people are one of the, so when we're talking about cues, actually, do you know what I'll ask you firstly, about this? I don't want to go down the route of having you bash other authors or other. People who are popular in this fear. Okay. But the reality is that at the moment, the most popular book on habits on Amazon is atomic habits by James clear.
So the likelihood is anyone who's starting, maybe their habit journey or finding out about this stuff. That might be the first book they read. And in that they're going to read his version of this, which is. his words would be the habit loop. And Charles Duhigg use the habit loop as well. And you see the word "habit loop" come up all the time. Again, that's not a phrase that appears in your book and albeit it seems like there's an element of overlap between them. So it's context, repetition reward. Is your habit loop. Is that where your version of it or the scientific version of it?
I didn't know that there's a loop. It. Yeah.
Professor Wendy Wood: It's it's a funny idea. If you're trying to form a habit, you just want to repeat the behavior in the same way, in a stable context for reward and the reward needs to be immediate. So that's a pretty straightforward description that I think most people would agree with and, whatever you call it is fine. Okay, but that's, those are the basic ingredients.
The Habits Habit (Brian): So talk then about, context. You say that people can be one of the greatest contexts and again, there's this concept out there for right or wrong, have accountability partners or a tribe of people that, you relate to, in that sense, it seems like a lot of people are using the internet as some, or social media as their, how would you to keep them on track or to keep accountable? You start your book with this in terms of your sister-in-law. Are we approaching it wrong in terms of how we're trying to set the environment in that way to support good habit formation?
Professor Wendy Wood: Yes. Cause other people can be cues to behavior.
They can also provide you with rewards. Having an exercise buddy is a great idea because you have someone to talk with. Somebody who reminds you, that you had set up a plan to go to the gym after work today. So other people can be both rewards and cues. I think, when relationships break up and you lose, if you've been in a close relationship with somebody and they break up, you get the sense that exactly how much of our behavior depends on other people. Depends on those cues. Depends on those rewards. Because it can leave you feeling I've lost a part of myself because so much of what I did was with this other person. If we can find communities. Online communities, other types, that provide rewards and cues for our beneficial behavior. That's great. There are different apps, workout apps that seem to do that now. And those should be very effective. There's a. and I know there's a bicycling app, There's Strava, but there's also Swift, which puts you cycling with other people in virtual worlds, but they're real other people and that's social connection and reward is really quite motivating for many people.
The Habits Habit (Brian): Yeah. My brother-in-law actually has Swift and he has it on, he has one of these I'm sure your son probably has it as well. It's one of these fancy, mechanical hydraulic what you call a turbo trainers. And he plunked the date in front of the tele and him and all his friends are off cycling in this virtual world because, they can't do it together or whatever.
This might sound so basic to a professor of psychology, but when I was reading about all of this and basically the core message, if you could drill it down to its very basics is. Just keep doing it. I couldn't get out of my head Dory from Finding Nemo, "just keep swimming." That's it, isn't it, whatever it is you're trying to do. Just keep doing it and then design your environment to make it as easy as you can to just keep doing it.
Professor Wendy Wood: And find a rewards that make sense to you that are, that you will appreciate. Yes, absolutely. Every writer who is successful has habits to write and they, I was down in, Key West and Ernest Hemingway had a house there and he had his own studio where he used to go every morning. and he wrote for several hours, that was his habit. He needed to be there for a certain amount of time. writing doesn't always go well and writing itself, the actual fact of it is not a habit.
It's creative. It's innovative. But it is enabled by that habit. And that's something that we've also learned in recent years and research is that many more of our behaviors than we would have imagined are supported by habits because habits provide the infrastructure. They are, what gets us writing every morning? For some writers, it's a number of pages or number of words that they regularly produce. Sometimes they're garbage sometimes they're great, but the habit is to do it.
The Habits Habit (Brian): You say that, you can make any behavior more habitual as long as you do it the same way each time. And so as well as a huge emphasis on setting up the environment, and being consistent. So there's a huge element of, repetition in terms of same time, same place, as you say, it's, let's just say it's a writing habit every morning from 9:00 AM, till 10:00 AM. I'm going to sit at this desk here and I'm going to write, and you do that religiously every day. And that becomes like that.
Here's a question for you from a 40 year old man with a six year old, three year old and nine month old downstairs. I have not had a consistent day in six years. I know it's a bit of a cop out, but is it harder to create habits at certain parts in your life where it's just very difficult to have a routine?
Professor Wendy Wood: Yes. There's one caveat to the statement I made earlier that everybody has habits and it's all at about the same proportion of your behavior. Is that when we studied people who live with others, particularly children,
The Habits Habit (Brian): Their lives were a mess. I spoiler alert. I can end this one for you. I dont need to see the research.
Professor Wendy Wood: You could think of it as their lives were more spontaneous because children are the biggest joy, but. Some of the biggest disruptors as well. It's and they keep growing and changing. And so that disruption, as soon as you think you haven't figured out that disruption shifts and they're onto a new stage in their life. So I'm afraid Brian, this is your experience for a while.
The Habits Habit (Brian): I should just let my life go to hell in a hand basket for a while. And we'll come back to the habits and a couple of decades while I'm obviously being facetious. I think what I'm learning or what are my personal experience of this is that I'm at a time in my life where I have to dial everything back. So if I still want the good habits, let's just say, I want to be a healthier person. Then, that might mean 10 minutes of exercise a day, rather than an hour, or, just trying to find ways to, get some sort of routine that works. Like when they go to bed. The first thing I do is this or whatever else it is.
And so where are we? So what I'm interested in terms of habits, okay is I see this as a way that people can really get a little more control of their lives and whatever else. And as someone who has spent a long time thinking about life in terms of goals, Where do you habits fit into this?
I mentioned earlier search volume. Sorry is a bit of a long-winded question. I will get to the end of it in a minute. If you look again at the search volume twice, as many people search for inspiration or motivation or goals and goal setting as search for habits. So by way of example, about 1.2 million people in the U S a month of search for inspirational quotes.
About 110,000 people search for habits.
Why are we obsessed with inspiration and motivation at the expense of habits? And do we need to reverse the process? So if I want to achieve a goal of, let's just say, being healthy is not a great goal because it's not very defined, but Should I, should your goal setting start with what habits do I need to achieve the goal? And then what environments can I design to achieve that habits? And then once you get the context, nd then the habit will follow and then the goal will follow that.
Professor Wendy Wood: That's a great description of it. Yep. I would agree with that completely.
I do think that the reason why people are searching for motivational quotes, is they are an immediate feel-good. Habits are beneficial over time. So habits are what help you achieve longterm goals that require repetition. Could be saving money. it could be studying, it could be writing a book, could be exercising, anything. It's very different from wanting a pick me up from a motivational quote. both are very legitimate and ultimately if you form the right habit, you won't even be thinking about it anymore. It won't be something that you have to think about.
So you'll be able to focus on motivational quotes and other things make you feel good.
I believe that people who have children and very, challenging lives with little children can be challenging at times. I think habits are helpful, especially helpful to you because they allow that they allow you to automate some parts of your life. When my kids were little, I have two sons. They're two years apart when they were little. I trained myself to get up and run at six in the morning because they would get up at seven and want to go, want breakfast to get to school. And that was the only time of the day, six to seven in the morning that I knew I would have to myself and I really struggled to fit it in at other times of the day, but I couldn't find a regular time to exercise.
So that was that was the decision I had to make. And once I formed that habit, the first few times I got up at six was pretty painful, but once I found the habit, it just became something I did and I didn't even think about it. It was no struggle anymore. It was like I had accomplished that piece and it ran off in my mind and I didn't have to make it happen anymore.
So I had a bit more energy left for handling my children. I was certainly calmer from the exercise and was able to play with them and engage with them. so I think that habits are particularly beneficial in your situation,
The Habits Habit (Brian): But it all starts seeing what's happening for me. The more I'm talking to people like yourself and the more I'm reading about it is it's all starting to make sense.
So the time I was at my most productive in my life has been when I was in school because I got up at the same time every day, I did the same thing every day. I came home at the same time. So when I was studying for our leaving cert, the equivalent of, the final high school exam, over in the States, I studied from seven till eight.
I did, went to school. I came home, I had food. I studied again, like it was pretty much the exact same thing for maybe two years and I smashed it because I was just in such it, there was no thought. It was just "it's this time at this time I do this" and it was all pretty effortless. And of course, the older you get the less rigidity and routine there is and you go to college and all of a sudden you're free to do whatever you want whenever you want. And I'm like, Jesus, this is, I don't know what to be doing with this at all. And it's trying to make time for routine around all the other stuff. But the more ritualized and routine it is, so it's not just, it's better, for example, is it, or is it to go for everyone at the same time, every day or however often you're going to do it, or, to start from the same starting point to have a consistency about not just exercising every day, but trying to do as roughly same time, same place, same, situation. Is that true?
Professor Wendy Wood: Yes, there actually has been research, people who go to the gym at the same time, every morning, same days of the week and same time at the, on those days, that they are more likely to automate that exercise to become a habit. So they start doing it without thinking, without having to struggle. and I, it's going to be different for everyone, but people with little children need to find time for themselves and it's usually not when the children are awake. So if your kids go to bed early, that might be the time for you to pull out your trainer or whatever.
But you're probably not going to be spending too much time doing a leisurely workout at the gym, just because there's not going to be that kind of, that there's not going to be that kind of flexibility in your day. So it forces you to make, to really prioritize. You have to be clear what is important to you?
The Habits Habit (Brian): and that I think is of elements. And it might be beyond the scope of this chat too, to an extent, I don't know, but we'll find out in a minute. Yes. And the disconnect or, the possible disconnect between habits and goals and depending on your point in life purpose. For a while, tipping on 40 as I was a bit rudderless and a bit, God, what am I doing? And what's this all about? and all my good habits actually just fell away a little bit because it felt like I don't know, could they exist in a vacuum if I didn't really feel I was in charge of, or I knew what I was doing or wanted to do, there was no real sense of I don't know, continuity or habits serving any particular purpose, particularly to start a new habits was a bit like, eh, it, the bigger question hadn't been answered or it was, if the bigger question wasn't sufficiently clear in my mind on a personal level, I just found everything else just fell apart a little bit how durable our habits to that kind of overarching life purpose, big question kind of interference.
Professor Wendy Wood: I'll answer it this way. we do know that people who have regular habits that they enjoy are happier in life. So automating things that make you feel good, it's good for your wellbeing. It's good for quality of life. There are always going to be things that. Bigger issues, bigger challenges that get in our way at times. But I would bet that even during those periods, you had some habits that just persisted,
The Habits Habit (Brian): Most of the bad ones,
Professor Wendy Wood: Even if you didn't really know why you were doing them anymore, because habits don't require a broader purpose to persist
The Habits Habit (Brian): Okay. let me ask you this then. If you take running as an example then, okay. For me, I had developed the habit of running, but in the context or in a very kind of specific context of training for a half marathon. And actually once I ran the half marathon and I stopped running because it felt like I'd achieved the goal that the habit was there to support. So while I was training for the half marathon, I never missed a day. I run every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday for, I don't know, five, six months, whatever it was. And then once I ran the half marathon, I just stopped. Does that makes sense?
Professor Wendy Wood: Yes, because habits don't necessarily, you can make decisions not to do not to act on your habits. You can decide you've met your goal and you're not doing it anymore. And so you might find yourself. I might find myself waking up at six in the morning thinking I'm going to go running and decide, no, I don want to today.
And so I don't, but. thought. See the habit is the thought in mind of the behavior. And most of the time we just go along with the action in mind and carry it out. but it's not inevitable. You can make decisions not to do things. So we're not automatons having to repeat behavior and doing it even if we don't want to.
Our habits are a challenge to control because they put those thoughts in our minds. And because you probably think when you walk down the aisle with all of the candy and the cookies and you call them biscuits, and the cakes and the supermarket, you probably think, I'm choosing those because I want to, that's our sense of agency, but it's also in part because. that thought of eating that food comes to mind when and buying it comes to mind when you're in the aisle, in the grocery store, we can't really figure out, we're not very good at figuring out what is our desire and what is a habit because we have this overarching belief in our own agency kind of gets in the way of identifying what's a habit.
The Habits Habit (Brian): Final question then Wendy, is there in all your years of studying this and human behavior and how, they interacts. is there like one particular. Good habits that would be considered a sort of foundational habit or a good starting point, or if there's one habit that is easy to set up the context for and get some success in so that you can understand better the power of habits. Do you follow what I mean? So let's just get one good habit in the bag using this system, and then we'll have more confidence to do the rest. Is there one that's a good starting point or is that just not really how this works?
Professor Wendy Wood: That's not really how it works. Your habit memory system will pick up anything you do repeatedly, and there's not any foundational habit or anything that's more basic than anything else. Just start with something that's easy for you. Something that you can control the environment, something that is enjoyable and that's the basic formula for all of us and all of our habits.
The Habits Habit (Brian): And do you think, is that boy, so many new year's resolutions fail because people just are all, you'd be embarrassed, to say what's your new year's resolution and to say something really easy, cause people would be, it's a mindset that's easy, but isn't that the point.
Professor Wendy Wood: Yeah, there was a wonderful study of new year's resolutions. three months after people had made them and they had people list the resolutions initially, and then go in and rate how enjoyable they would be, which seems irrelevant.
This is new year's resolution, how enjoyable it would be to do this thing. And then how life-changing and important it would be. Now, that's why we make new year's resolutions because they're life changing. And so the research is interested in which resolutions survived that three months. And what they found out was the real life changing ones, they didn't survive people weren't especially likely to follow through on resolutions that they thought were really important and change their life. Instead, they followed through on the ones that they found enjoyable. And that's an important insight. Even with new year's resolutions, you need to get a reward.
The Habits Habit (Brian): And so you, so make it something that you make it something easy that you enjoy doing. And 2021 is going to be the year for you.
Brilliant listen, thank you so much for coming on and sharing your insight with us. I've really enjoyed the book. I'm going to go back through it again. And, this is not the reason you talked to me, but I'm full of great excuses named for Roy. I've been doing everything wrong. I can't wait to get in and tell my wife that none of it's my fault.
Professor Wendy Wood: Exactly it is. Once you understand some of the mechanisms behind your own behavior, it's. It's slippery.
The Habits Habit (Brian): It is.
Now, before we wrap up what's the most exciting you obviously presumably have lots of insight into the current research.
That's on an ongoing and that. The rest of the world might not know about yet, or that hasn't been published. Is there anything happening at the moment that you're really excited about in this area or that you can't wait to see the results of?
Professor Wendy Wood: I think some of the most interesting work right now is very molecular in the sense that. It's understanding what it is about habit memories that makes them stick. So it's very it's mechanistic about what is it about those memories that we can't just discard them? Like we can, all of the other memories we have, in fact, This is a real challenge, right?
For eyewitness testimony, other sorts of things that every time we retrieve a memory, it shifts slightly. So that people's. Testimony can change over time without them realizing it. But habits don't work that way. So what is it that makes them that gives them that quality? I think that's a very interesting question.
And one that we're pursuing right now in our lab.
The Habits Habit (Brian): Because isn't it, isn't the theory that you the have you never forget that habit. There's this kind of theory about replacing one habit with another, because that memory never goes, you shift the cues, you shift other things, but the memory itself is always there.
Professor Wendy Wood: Yep. You get back to the old cues and the old habit can be activated. Even if you think you've forgotten.
The Habits Habit (Brian): Fascinating. Okay. Look, I've taken up enough of your time Dr Wood. Thank you so much for talking to me, I really appreciate it.
Professor Wendy Wood: I've enjoyed it. Thank you, Brian
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