How to stick to a habit
December 4, 2021•523 words
Reading time: 3 min
How to stick to a habit (and Operant Conditioning)
In addition to ways of preventing ourselves from dropping habits (removing disincentives), what is an effective way of building and sticking to a habit (adding incentives)?
I started to work out as I want to be healthier. I also have the following conditions:
- My time is limited and I don't want to commit time to working out
- A workout is inherently tiring and an upfront cost for uncertain future benefit
- Watching videos is a joy I like to indulge in
- Despite my 'lack of time' (or rather differing priorities), I'm happy paying a bit of time every day to watch videos
- I am aware that watching videos for entertainment is generally unproductive past a certain point
- I consider working out to be something productive
To solve all of these problems, I combined my video watching time with my workout time (I don't see a reason they have to be separated if my workout is indoors and I'm not bouncing all over the place).
- Combines a rewarding activity with a punishing activity (immediately, anyway)
- I'm not expending extra time
- I'm converting an 'unproductive' activity into a combination 'productive' activity.
And this is working! I've found working out to be a joy, probably because I'm happy watching videos while doing it (along with happiness chemicals released while working out). Especially since I know I'm not spending any extra time to do this.
I'd recommend this to anyone trying to form a habit that involves an up-front unpleasant action (such as working out):
Tie a pleasant habit with the new unpleasant habit. Preferably, perform the habits simultaneously (see below).
What I described above can be framed in the operant conditioning process, generally attributed to psychologist B. F. Skinner.
It describes how our behaviours are changed by reinforcement (reward) or punishment, respectively increasing or decreasing the likelihood of continuing the behaviour. Each reinforcement or punishment activity can be further divided into positive or negative, such that there are 4 categories:
- Positive reinforcement: adding a reward
- Negative reinforcement: removing a punishment
- Positive punishment: adding a punishment
- Negative punishment: removing a reward
The methods I described to avoid dropping habits are arguably negative reinforcement- I take away something negative (by reducing commitment/friction) to make the habit less of a chore, to encourage the habit.
The methods I described in this post entail positive reinforcement- I add a reward that comes with the habit.
Placing a reward with a habit is arguably better than placing a reward that comes after the habit, given that we are generally 'present-biased'. This means that our current priorities and feelings take precedent over our future priorities and feelings. As such, if the reward comes after the habit, my present self has to pay the immediate price, and only my future self will get the reward. The cost facing my present self takes priority over the future reward, making the reward less effective. This is not an issue if the reward comes along with the habit, simultaneously.