Automation as a way to make habit change easier

Dr. Melissa Shepard Smiling in white lab coat

By Dr. Melissa Shepard

Habit change is hard, so we want to give ourselves every possible advantage when setting out to make a significant change. And many of our not-so-great habits stick because, despite causing long-term problems, they help us feel better momentarily.


Because our habits make us feel better in the short-term, it makes sense that we are more likely to reach for these habits when we are feeling stressed, sad, anxious, or otherwise less than 100%. If your brain is already taxed, you don’t want to spend time critically thinking, weighing the pros and cons, and researching your options. You want to go with what’s familiar and effective (even if, historically, it has only provided short-term gain).


To make a habit change, you have to keep things simple and make it as easy as possible for your brain to engage in the new habit (and resist the old) during these periods of stress, sadness, anxiety, boredom, or other challenging feelings. Spending some time to think about how you can automate your habits can make it easier for your brain to take a different route when things get tough.


One way to automate your new habits is to develop a series of if/then or when/then statements that you can use to guide your actions in a pinch. Every habit we have relies on an antecedent (something that happens before the habit is triggered) or contextual cue (something present in the environment when the habit is triggered) to set it off. For example, when I get in my car, then I fasten my seatbelt. If the weather report calls for rain, then I will grab my umbrella before leaving the house. These actions are pretty automatic: we don’t have to think about them much because our brains have learned to perform these actions in response to a certain set of circumstances or triggers.


Now think about the habits that tend to trip you up or the new habits you would like to start. Can you identify any reliable predictors that you are going to engage in a problem habit? For example, if you struggle with binge eating, perhaps you notice that most of your binge eating occurs on the couch in front of the TV. Think about how you could write an if/then or when/then statement to help you change your response to the contextual cue of sitting on the couch to watch TV. You could say: If I sit on the couch to watch TV, then I will play a game on my phone, work on my knitting, or practice drawing to keep my hands busy. Alternatively, you could say: If I want to snack in the evenings, then I will sit at the table and focus on eating mindfully.


If you want to start a new habit altogether, you can also use these if/then or when/then statements. For example, say you want to become a better writer. You could say: When I sit down to drink coffee in the morning, then I will work on my blog for 10 minutes. Or: When I take my lunch break, then I will read articles on how to improve my writing.


Writing these if/then statements down is particularly important. It’s not enough to think of the changes you want to make; you have to put them down on paper and review them often to make them stick. It will take a lot of attention and practice at first, but changing your habits will become automatic if you stick with it!


If you want to learn more about how to change your habits, check out the “Resources” section of the website to find more on the subject!

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