How to Form a Habit in the New Year

At new year it seems nearly everyone wants to change some aspect of their lives.

But as we all know, new habits are hard to form.  Many of us give up before a habit has formed.  So the key question is, how long should we persist before we can expect new behaviours to become automatic?

A recent study by Lally et al (2010) reviewed a range of health related behaviours, for example going for a 15 minute run before dinner, eating a piece of fruit with lunch and doing 50 sit ups after morning coffee.

Of the 82 participants who saw the study through to the end, the most common pattern of habit formation was after 66 days.  However, this average figure hides the variation between participants.  Some reached automaticity after 18 days and others after 254 days!  It’s also worth noting that even after 84 days over half of the participants had not reached automaticity.  So new routines should be persisted with for at least 3 months before we may expect them to be automatic.  This is longer than previously thought, and complex behaviours (like practicing mindfulness) may take longer.

But finally, what about the effect of falling off the wagon?  What effect does a day off from the new behaviour have?

This study suggests that a single missed days has little impact.  However, repeated missed repetitions of the behaviour do have a cumulative impact.  The conclusion is that a missed day or two is fine, but be willing to come back hard if you do miss a day. And be willing to persist for at least 3 months.

For fuller details of this study go here.

The Near Enemy of Psychological Flexibility

I recently presented an ACT workshop with NeLi Martin and she spoke about the concept of the ‘near enemy’.

In our attempts to become better people the near enemy can actually be more dangerous than the far enemy.  For example, the far enemy of compassion is hatred but the near enemy is pity. It is easy to differentiate compassion from hatred but much more difficult to spot the more subtle differences between pity and compassion.
In this blog, I often mention psychological flexibility because it is associated with well being.  Steve Hayes defines psychological flexibility as:

The ability to contact the present moment
fully and without defence
as a conscious human being
engaged in life as it is – not as your mind says it is –
and, based on what the situation affords,
changing or persisting in behaviour
in the service of chosen values.

The far enemy of psychological flexibility is ‘experiential avoidance’ – making inflexible choices that aren’t aligned with values and that have the core aim of avoiding painful thoughts, feelings or memories.  Experiential avoidance is associated with all sorts of poor outcomes.

But the near enemy is to turn the choice to live a value laden life into a harsh, ‘fake it ’til you make it’; ‘suck it up’; ‘carry on regardless’ approach.  I think if we want to avoid this near enemy, we need to have a stance of self-compassion when we are doing our best to live our values.

The Well Being Equivalent of 5 Fruit and Vegetables a Day

The Foresight Mental Capital and Wellbeing Project aimed to, amongst other things, ‘identify the wellbeing equivalent of “five fruit and vegetables a day”.’ Based on an extensive review of the evidence they came up with:

1. Connect… with the people around you.
2. Be active… find a physical activity you enjoy that suits your level of mobility and fitness… and do it!
3. Take notice… be curious. Savour each moment. Reflect on your experiences to help you appreciate what really matters to you.
4. Keep learning… try something new. Rediscover an old interest. Set a challenge you enjoy achieving.
5. Give … practice intentional acts of kindness. Show gratitude.
Nice.  These truths about how to live a good life are fairly obvious. It interests me how often I need to be reminded of them if I am to actually do them.

I would also add a sixth ‘serving’  – without this one, the others are pretty meaningless:
6. Develop Psychological Flexibility

The ability to contact the present moment fully and without defence as a conscious human being engaged in life as it is – not as your mind says it is – and, based on what the situation affords, changing or persisting in behaviour in the service of chosen values (Steve Hayes)

The evidence for the association between psychological flexibility and emotional well being is becoming pretty compelling.

Psychological Flexibility in the Workplace

So many leadership courses are based on the idea that to improve performance we must firstly sort our thinking out.  So we focus on motivation, confidence, self-belief or ways of controlling or removing anxiety and stress.  Sounds logical enough.

The problem is whilst this approach makes such intuitive sense to us, the evidence does not support it.  Our minds are expert problem solving machines which evolved to scan the environment for threat, propose hypotheses, and then prompt action to avoid, control or get rid of any threats. But when we try to apply the same techniques to our own thoughts, beliefs and emotional states, the evidence is that we make the problem worse, not better.

This may sound like a small distinction but it has profound implications for the way we learn, teach and improve performance  in the workplace.  In short, the evidence suggests that focusing on trying to alter, control or avoid emotional and cognitive states as the means to improving performance is flawed.  From workplace stress to task concentration, innovation, depression, anxiety, OCD and even chronic pain management, all are showing that attempting to regulate our own internal states IS the problem.  By trying to get rid of anxiety for example, we make enemies of our own thoughts and emotions and increase our distress.

In contrast, the alternative – psychological flexibility – gives people control over their lives, ironically by letting go of the struggle of trying to control their emotional states.  It is the ability to focus on task-relevant stimuli whilst feeling negative emotions that drives better performance and reduces distress (see Gardner and Moore, 2008).

This is why I use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) in my career work.  It helps people move towards the life they choose whilst handling the doubts and fear that come with that move.

It’s also why we’re slowly building a range of courses which use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in the workplace, Rachel in Australia and Rob in the UK.  We are pioneering this approach, but for HR Directors and L&D managers everywhere, we think this is the future.

What is Psychological Flexibility?

The main focus of ACT is to increase something called psychological flexibility.  But what is psychological flexibility and why is it important?

Of all the psychological phenomena that we have studied, this is the one that is of by far the most help to the people we work with in organisations.  Becoming more psychologically flexible helps people not just cope with stress but to do more of what it is they really value.  So what exactly is it?

Psychological flexibility has been defined as “the ability to contact the present moment more fully as a conscious human being and to change, or persist in, behavior when doing so serves valued ends” (Biglan, Hayes, & Pistorello, 2008).

‘Contacting the present more fully’ means willing to be present with difficult thoughts and emotions and to accept ourselves as we are, not as we think we should be.  This is a critical difference, because research shows that trying to get rid of our difficult thoughts and emotions increases their frequency, strength and duration (Wegner, 1994).

It also helps to understand psychological flexibility’s opposite orientation—experiential avoidance (EA).  EA is the tendency to avoid or control unpleasant thoughts and feelings, even when doing so creates problems for a person.  For example, someone who has the thought that they “are stupid” may avoid situations (e.g., a classroom) that might embarrass them.  However, this strategy has the effect of systematically narrowing one’s options in life.

It’s easy to see how EA can be a problem in career change, but empirical evidence also associates EA with anxiety, depression, substance abuse, poor work performance and chronic stress.  Conversely, becoming more psychologically flexible allows people to cope with life more effectively and to derive wellbeing as a consequence of valued living.

Being psychologically flexible doesn’t make life easier or more pleasant.  But it makes it more vital and  values-directed.  And that, incidentally, is what most of our clients want from their career change; a life worth living.