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The science of behaviour change: Change your life with these easily actionable tweaks

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Behaviour change strategies

Want to change your behaviour/life for the better?

Then it’s time to make a few small tweaks to your lifestyle.

Below are 15 scientifically proven strategies that can help you change any behaviour.

1. Re-engineer your environment

Simple changes to your environment can help nudge you towards engaging in particular behaviours. For example, a year ago I set a goal to move more during the day. To achieve this goal, here’s how I modified my workspace:

• I removed my office chair
• I installed a standing desk
• I converted a treadmill to a treadmill desk and placed it in the centre of the room
• I set up a whiteboard to brainstorm on my feet
• I put a yoga mat on the floor and a set of dumbbells under my desk

These little changes forced me to work on my feet. Instead of sitting hunched in a chair, I now move constantly throughout the day.

2. Establish clear cues

Half the battle when it comes to adopting a new behaviour is remembering to do it. Enter cues!

Cues are things you see or hear that remind you to engage in a particular behaviour.

Here are some examples of cues:

• An alarm or timer going off
• A message to yourself written on a whiteboard
• An object placed in the middle of a room (e.g. an instrument that you need to practice or gym clothes set out)
• A note written on your hand
• A message on your screensaver
• An implementation intention

3. Implementation intentions

Implementation intentions

Implementation intentions are slightly more sophisticated cues. They involve making plans for when and where you’ll execute an intention (If I do X, then I will do Y).

Here are some examples of implementation intentions:

• “Today at 5pm, after work, I will go for a 20 minute walk.”
• “When I sit down on the bus, I will get out my flashcards and do 5 minutes of revision.”
• “I will meditate for 10 minutes at 7am in my bedroom.”

When a certain situation arises (e.g. you finish work or get on the bus), then you will carry out a particular behaviour (e.g. walk for 20 minutes or revise flashcards). The more you follow through with these plans, the sooner the behaviour will become a habit.

4. Make it a habit

The more times you repeat a behaviour, the more deeply engrained it becomes in your brain. Once a behaviour becomes an engrained habit, it requires very little mental effort to execute.

As Dr Sean Young states in his book Stick with it:

“Brains are like cars. Driving them in manual mode takes a lot of awareness and effort. But brains prefer to be in automatic mode. They do this by storing things that frequently occur so they can be easily accessed. Think of it like your brain storing your username and password for a site you visit often. That way you can login effortlessly, without even thinking, allowing you to concentrate on other things.”

To get to automatic mode, you need to engage in the behaviour over and over again. Early and often is key!

5. Start small

We all have dreams. But often our dreams are so big and overwhelming we fail to do anything to move towards them. So break your dream down into small steps.

Ask yourself:

• What do I need to do today?
• What do I need to do in the next 10 minutes?
• What do I need to do in the next 30 seconds?

Let’s say you have a dream of improving your fitness and wellbeing. Today you’ll need to do some exercise to achieve this goal. The problem is your brain says, “Ugh…exercise .. don’t want to!”. So what do you do?

You could say, “All I need to do is go to the gym and touch the floor”. Of course, once you get to the gym, walk in and touch the floor, you’re there. You might as well keep going.

6. Practise mindfulness

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is about being aware of what’s going on in the present moment (i.e. your thoughts, sensations, feelings and surroundings). If you’re aware that you’re engaging in a bad habit, then you’re in a better position to stop and do something different. In short, you can better self regulate.

How do you become more mindful?

One way is to practise meditation. You can read more about this technique here.

7. Make it easy

As humans, we are wired to do what’s easy and most convenient. As psychologist Sean Young states:

“People want things to be easy for them to do. They enjoy things that are easy for them to do. And they’ll keep doing things that are easy to do.”

So how do you make a behaviour easy or easier to do?

Here are a few ideas:

• Break it down with a simple plan: list out all the small steps you need to take.
• Re-engineer your environment: decrease the barriers to engagement.
• Make it a habit: repeat the new behaviour over and over again (implementation intentions can help with this).

8. Reflection

At the end of the day, week and month, do a quick check in. Ask yourself:

• How did I go today with what I set out to do?
• If things didn’t go to plan, what got in the way?
• What could I do differently tomorrow?

Pausing to reflect for a few minutes is time well spent. It allows you to consider better ways of doing things, so you can course correct and make continual improvements.

9. Join a community

Motivational speaker Jim Rohn states:

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

In other words, you soak up your friends’ qualities.

Have friends who exercise and eat well? You’re more likely to exercise and eat well. Have friends who take their studies seriously? You’re more likely to take your studies seriously.

If you’re trying to change a particular behaviour, see if there is a community you can join that can support you. Connect with other people who have changed or are trying to change their behaviour. There’s a real sense of comradery when you spend time with other people who are all working towards the same goals as you.

10. Make it fun

Make it fun

If you’re engaging in the same behaviour day in, day out, at some point your brain will get bored. So we need to explore ways to make the behaviour a bit novel and interesting for our brains. We need to apply Fun theory.

Here are some ideas of how you can perk up your brain:

• Change your environment
• Mix up the order of your routine
• Make it social in some way
• Have some music playing in the background
• Use rewards

11. Practise gratitude

One study found people who practised gratitude on a regular basis experienced better psychological wellbeing, a more positive outlook on the future, better sleep and engaged in more physical exercise.

When you feel good and you’re in a good headspace, it’s much easier to make changes in your life. For ideas on how to practise gratitude, click here.

12. Neurohacks

Sometimes we spend too much time in our heads, trying to change our thinking to change our behaviour. But there’s an easier way.

You can create lasting behaviour change by engaging in small behaviours that trick your brain into viewing yourself in a new way.

For instance, instead of thinking about putting on your running shoes, force yourself to put your running shoes on at a certain time each day and go for a short walk. Keep doing this everyday for a few weeks. What will happen is your self image will begin to shift. You’ll start to see yourself as someone who exercises on a regular basis.

13. Track your progress

When you engage in a new behaviour, take note. Give yourself a gold star, a tick on a whiteboard, record it in an app or in a notebook, etc. This may seem a little childish or pedantic but it allows your brain to see that your making progress. It’s highly motivating for your brain. You’ll want to keep going.

14. Think negatively (visualise obstacles)

Visualising the perfect life is a strategy that feels nice but research shows it doesn’t work. In contrast, sitting down and imagining all the possible things that could go wrong on your change journey is much more effective. Why?

When you imagine all the things that could go wrong, your brain starts to think and plan about what it can do to avoid these things from occurring.

15. Use rewards and incentives

Rewards and incentives

Rewards can motivate you do things you really don’t want to do. Think about it, lots of people go to jobs they hate with a passion for the reward of money. Rewards work.

But you need to find what rewards and incentives will work for you. When it comes to studying for a test or exam, you could reward yourself in the following simple ways:

• Have a snack
• Do something fun
• Watch a funny video
• Play with your dog

The thing about rewards is they have to come after you’ve done the thing you need to do, not before. Pre-rewards don’t work.

It’s also important to make sure the reward is in alignment with your goals. If you’re trying to be healthier and lose weight, don’t make your reward a block of chocolate or a bucket of deep fried chicken.

To sum up

So now it’s over to you. What change do you want to make?

Pick a behaviour and one or two of the strategies listed above. Have a play. See how many of these easily actionable tweaks you can incorporate into your daily routine.

And just remember, all behaviour change begins with committing to take the next step. So what’s your next small step?

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