One of the great mysteries about habit-creation is the fact that some habits form easily—sometimes too easily—while others don’t stick. Why? There are many answers, but from my research I’ve concluded that sometimes the problem is a lack of clarity.
Very often, we have warring aims. We want to master a habit—to go to sleep on time, to drink less—but we also want something that conflicts with that habit—to stay up watching TV, to treat ourselves. Because we don’t acknowledge this ambivalence, we can’t form the habit.
If we push ourselves to get clear on what we really want, we’re far more likely to succeed in changing our behavior.
Consider the tremendous problem of medication compliance. The Center for Disease Control estimates that about half of adults don’t take their medicines as prescribed—in many cases, because they lack clarity of action. When people wonder, “Why should I bother to take these pills, anyway?” or “When am I supposed to take those pills?” or “Did I take my pills already?” they’re less likely to take them. That’s why some familiar pill bottles have been swapped for blister packs with compartments clearly labeled with the day of the week.
Concrete language helps us achieve greater clarity of action. Many people, including myself, complain that they want to “feel less stressed about work,” but that vague complaint doesn’t suggest any particular course of action. So, instead of continually saying, “I’m stressed,” I pressed myself to identify the problem. I realized that I felt stressed because, as a writer, I felt like I should be working all the time. Once I realized exactly why I felt stressed, I saw a solution, and I started giving myself “Quitting Time”; at a certain point each night, I decide, “No more work, it’s Quitting Time,” and I allow myself to goof off. That habit makes me feel much less stressed. Someone else might be stressed out by an obnoxious co-worker, or by an unpleasant commute; once they’ve spelled out the specific problem, the greater clarity usually helps them spot a solution.
Another effective way to gain clarity of action is to invoke a “bright-line rule.” That is, use a sharply defined rule that makes decision-making easy—no more debating, “Is this okay, can I do this?” To stop impulse shopping, for example, buy only from a prepared list. To stop over-eating at parties, skip the hors d’oeuvres. To stop wasting the morning in a dreamy doze, get out of bed the first time the alarm buzzes (even better, put the alarm clock across the room).
Striving for clarity can often reveal fresh solutions. One couple went to marriage counseling because they fought about whether it was more important to have a pleasant, orderly apartment or plenty of leisure time. They kept arguing—until they saw a way to serve both values. They quit marriage counseling and instead spent that money on a weekly cleaning service. A friend loved taking long bike rides on the weekends, but also wanted plenty of family time. For a long while, whatever he did with his day, he wished he’d done something else. When he pushed himself to get clarity, the solution became obvious: on weekends, he gets up at 5:00 a.m. to ride for six hours, and spends the rest of the day at home with his family.
Clarity requires us to shine a spotlight on aspects of ourselves that we want to conceal. We should always pay special attention to any habit that we try to hide; the desire to avoid witnesses—to prevent someone from glimpsing the computer screen or tallying how much time or money we’re spending on a habit—is a clue that in some way, our actions don’t reflect our values. For that reason, one way to attack a hidden bad habit, such as secret smoking, secret shopping, or secret tracking of an ex-flame on Facebook, is to force it into public view. We may choose to give up the habit if we can’t keep it secret. Or, we may be reassured by the realization that we aren’t alone in our habit.
Research by Professor Wendy Wood and colleagues shows that we repeat about 40 percent of our behavior almost daily. For this reason, our habits have a tremendous influence on our existence—and our future.
Many experts suggest one-size-fits-all solutions for forming habits, but, unfortunately, no single magic solution exists as we’ve all learned from tough experience. It all depends on what works for our particular nature, interests, and values. By pushing ourselves to get clarity, we can succeed in changing our habits, even if we’ve failed before.