‘Tis the season of changing habits – getting rid of bad ones, adding new ones. The habit du jour is “dry January” – 30 alcohol-free days to start the year. Don’t count on willpower to make this or any other habit happen – instead, think about friction.

We are largely on autopilot. According to a recent episode from Shankar Vedantam’s Hidden Brain,  43% of everyday actions are done repeatedly. Good or bad, these habits inform our trajectory through life. Willpower is certainly helpful but it turns out that people who we credit with having good willpower have, instead, set up their lives to avoid temptations. In our household that means not buying Oreo cookies.

Many say that it takes 30 days to form a new habit – it may take longer, lots longer, be patient. A study cited showed that adding a just one glass of water to your daily intake took two months to become a habit!

Shankar’s guest, Wendy Wood, author of “Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes that Stick”, had several habit-changing tips, a few are listed below, but be sure to check out the full episode for more motivation:

  1. Reduce friction – make it obvious, easy and efficient
    • A study reported that people who lived 3.5 miles from their gym went five time a month while people who lived 5 miles away went just once a month
    • Build it in: The six-floor Bullitt Center in Seattle was built to encourage its occupants to use the stairs. They designed a prominent outdoor staircase crafted of Douglas fir with large landings encouraging people to pause, chat and take in unobstructed views of Seattle as they ascended. Result? Two-thirds of occupants on the sixth floor are using the stairs over the elevator.
    • Chefs employ “mise en place”, a practice of organizing all of their ingredients and tools before starting their dish to ensure consistent quality
  2. Increase friction – make it harder, a little uncomfortable
    • In a study of popcorn eating movie goers, those who were in the habit of eating popcorn at movies ate it whether it was fresh or week-old stale popcorn BUT if they were instructed to eat it with their less dominant hand, they quit eating the state popcorn! They had to think about it at least long enough to determine it was stale and not worth the effort.
    • Stop smoking campaigns weren’t initially successful even though the Surgeon General had proven the link between cigarettes and cancer in 1964. However, once friction was increased by banning smoking from public places (making it inconvenient) and increasing taxes on cigarettes (making it more expensive) smokers declined from 42% to 14% today.
  3. Avoid temptation (don’t buy Oreos) – the savings application of this is to set up automatic transfers to your savings goals and live on the remainder or, as Warren Buffett puts it, “save first and spend what’s leftover”.
    • I recently met with a 3rd Decade™ participant who tracked her spending, figured out how much she should be able to save, set up automatic contributions to her 401k and Roth IRA and fully funded both last year to the tune of $26,000 by keeping living and transportation costs very low.

Here’s wishing you more good and fewer bad habits in the coming year!

NOTE: I’ve been in the habit of writing a weekly blog for the past 5 years, a positive habit that’s had many rewards. It’s forced me to increase my knowledge and to develop and improve my ability to communicate my thoughts. That said I’m dropping back to one blog a month while others try their hand at this positive habit. And, remember, we always welcome guest bloggers!