The theme of this month is about smoking cessation and – more generally - behaviour change. I guess we all have behaviours or habits that we would like to change for the better. For example, you would like to eat less candy or you wish to be less lazy and take the stairs more often. But how can you change your behaviour? In this blog, I will provide you with some (scientifically proven) steps and techniques to change your behaviour.
Step 1: You can do it :-)
The first step is to believe in yourself and the changes you would like to make. You – and no one else – can change your behaviour. Behaviour change is a skill and you can learn it.
Step 2: Motivate yourself!
Write down why you want to change that specific behaviour or habit and imagine the benefits of changing that behaviour. It will help you to start and keep on going when things become though. Did you know that a lot of smoking cessation apps tell you how much money you have saved since you stopped smoking or which health benefits you already achieved after day 1, day 2, week 1 etc.? These could be extra motivators!
Step 3: Take very tiny tiny baby steps.
Changing your behaviour takes time and you should only take very tiny baby steps to change your behaviour. Don’t change too much at once, it is all about building new routines and habits by changing one little thing at a time. Start off with a very simple challenge for yourself. Overcoming this first small challenge will inspire you to go further.
Step 4: Make it work!
After these first 3 steps it is time to really start working on changing your behaviour. Research has shown that an important factor contributing to (or hampering) change is your environment. So, change your environment so that it will help you to accomplish your goals. I will give some examples:
Do you want to eat healthy?
Don’t buy candy or cookies, but instead buy a large bowl, fill it with fresh and colourful fruit and put it in a prominent place. Every time you want to snack, your attention will go to the fruit bowl and you are more likely to choose for a healthy snack. The same goes for drinking more water. Put a water bottle in a prominent position. Make sure that healthy options are available and easily visible all the time.
Do you want to exercise more?
Look for an exercise friend/buddy, so he/she will remind you of actually doing it.
This last example is more about changing your social environment. Social pressure is another factor that will change your behaviour. In the past few years, we have seen the power of the social environment in smoking. People gave up smoking, not because of the warnings on the cigarette packages, but because friends and family would point out the dangers of secondhand smoking.
Another example of effective social behaviour change is that people are now fastening their seat belts, only because their car won’t stop making an annoying noise unless they secure it. All these examples are about changing your (social) environment so that it forces you to replace a bad habit with a healthier one.
Research has also shown that we behave the way we do, because many behaviours are just habits. Sometimes we do have the intention to change our behaviour, but this doesn’t mean we also actually behave the way we want to; we might get distracted, forget about it, have difficulties to start or we might have other conflicting habits.
A solution to this is to make specific associations between your intention and the behaviour. You could make implementation intentions: “When I get into situation Z, I will show behaviour Y”. This way you transform specific situations into triggers for your behaviour. As soon as you enter a specific situation you are more likely to perform your new behaviour.
Another slightly rephrased implementation intention could be: “After I [existing habit], I will [perform new behaviour X]”. In this case, the trigger for your new behaviour or new habit is an existing habit. For an interesting Ted Talk about this principle, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AdKUJxjn-R8.
Step 5: Celebrate!
Every time you managed to perform your new behaviour, celebrate it! This is very important if you want to train a new habit. A simple ‘Yaay!’ will already do it. But of course, for bigger victories you can reward yourself a little bit more.
Gollwitzer, P. M., & Brandstätter, V. (1997). Implementation intentions and effective goal pursuit. Journal of Personality and social Psychology, 73(1), 186.
Holland, R. W., Aarts, H., & Langendam, D. (2006). Breaking and creating habits on the working floor: A field-experiment on the power of implementation intentions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42(6), 776-783.
Sheeran, P. (2002). Intention—behavior relations: A conceptual and empirical review. European review of social psychology, 12(1), 1-36.