Changing Circumstance, Disrupting Habits

Habits are automatic

How much did you do today that was simply a repetition of yesterday?  Was your breakfast similar? Maybe it was different but you sat in the same chair or ate it at the same time? What about the order of your morning ablutions? The route you took to work?  The irresistible snack you chose from the snack machine, around the 3 pm slump?

Many of our habits are not only frequent but we do them in certain (usually stable) circumstances, or in response to set triggers i.e. given times, certain ways of feeling, or things in our environment.

The box of wine in my lounge room that arrived too late for a party is at fault, not me, for blowing my alcohol minimization targets this month. Yes?  I knew you’d understand.

Over time our habits become ‘triggered’ automatically by certain internal and external things and of course ….. stuff.

But don’t intentions matter?

Habits are different from conscious intentions.  Walking into a dark room is likely to have you reach for a light switch without any conscious thinking it through at all.  It is perhaps not surprising that different brain bits are involved in these different processes (specifically the neocortex for habits and the hippocampus for making novel decisions not triggered by repetition or environment).

But yes it seems that your conscious intentions may also have some influence over your habits, just maybe not as much as you would like.

Shake things up

So what happens when life changes (temporality or permanently), when naturally our cues and daily routines are altered dramatically?  Wood, Tam et al. (2005) considered exactly this.  They looked at what happened to students when they moved between universities in three key habits; exercise, reading the newspaper (I know who does that anymore – right?) and watching TV.

They were interested in how circumstances, intentions and habits work together, or against each other, to maintain or change habits – after a move that naturally disrupted daily triggers and cues as well as potentially intentions, and of course social networks and systems (which are also important in habits).

They found context was key in whether certain habits traveled from the first living environment to the second.   However these changes were also influenced by what intentions were set in the new environment.

In summary, the environment, intention, automatic triggers – relationship appears complex and interwoven.

Wanna Quit Smoking? Take a Holiday!

This research helps us understand the anecdotal idea that changing major life habits is easier when say we take an overseas holiday or move houses.

However before you book your next trip – is it really that simple? Each person has their own daily triggers and their own specific intentions (driven of course by their own life story, values, personality etc).  Hence understanding why Jack quit smoking on his Bahamas holiday but Joanne took it up on her African Safari, is not that easy.

Take away

So what is the take out?

I’m taking a long hard look at the internal and external triggers as well as intentions on each of my good and bad habits.  The challenge I suspect is how subconscious much of this is.

I do notice I am writing this with a glass of wine in the ‘usual spot’ just between my two screens and within easy reach of my left hand (I’m left-handed).  Is this triggering my writing, or the writing trigger my wine-ing?  What of my intentions to drink or write, or write while drinking?

I am uber keen to hear about your habits and intentions.  Drop me a comment below.

Footnotes, References etc

This blog is part of a larger series on habits (select habits in the sidebar for others).  This blog is focused on the article below of the same title – published in 2005.   Academic knowledge does not turn over like celebrity news and just because it isn’t this week’s news doesn’t mean it does not have something profound to teach us, that just might make our lives better …. In fact I think it does.

Wood, W., et al. (2005). “Changing circumstances, disrupting habits.” Journal of personality and social psychology 88(6): 918.

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