5 Scientific Rules for Making & Breaking Habits in 2023! | E208 | Transcription
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This, for many of you, will be the most important podcast episode I've ever recorded. And I don't usually ask you to do this, but in this case, I'm going to ask you to please listen to this entire episode if you can and if you have the opportunity to do so. If there's something in your life that you've struggled with, something you've struggled to change, that goal you've had that you've never quite managed to attain, then this episode was made for you. I've been inundated with messages over the last couple of weeks as we approach the new years. And these messages all seem to express slight variations of the same critical question, which is, how do I make and break habits in 2023? Our lives are quite simply a manifestation of our habits, the things we repeatedly do. So as many of you have correctly identified, if we can change those habits, we can make and break behaviors, take control of our lives, and finally achieve our most important goals. And in my life, all of the good things have come after me breaking a habit that's had me trapped in sort of a limiting, sometimes toxic cycle in my life. And so habits and studying how they're made and how we make and break them with will has been one of the most important realizations in my life. And in the research of this, this particular podcast episode, I spent weeks researching and reading every book that I could on the science of making and breaking habits. And in this episode, I'm going to tell you everything that I learned, everything that you need to know from the most up to date scientific research on habits and changing behavior. And I do this in the hope that one of you, even one of you, I think it would be worthwhile if I land this effect on one of you, one of you can change behavior you've wanted to change and therefore take control of a habit and therefore change your life. Multiple scientific studies have found that most people give up their New Year's resolutions within a month and according to a recent American study of the 41% of Americans who made New Year's resolution by the end of the year, only 9% were successful in keeping it 9%. That means if you make a New Year's resolution at the start of the year, by the end of the year, only 9% of you have achieved it. I know this might make you not believe in New Year's resolutions. It might make you think they're pointless, but the study also reveal something that suggests otherwise, 6 months after setting a New Year's resolution, 46% of people who made a resolution were still successful in achieving it. They still had the good habits going compared to just 4% of people who made a similar goal that wasn't a New Year's resolution. That's a 1,050% increase in the probability of you achieving your goal after 6 months if you set it as a New Year's resolution. Similarly, research by psychologist John Norcross, a very famous American psychologist, has found that resolution makers are more than 10 times as successful in changing their behavior as people who want to change but don't have a formal resolution. Now, I used to be in the camp of thinking that resolutions were an excuse for not making change earlier in the year, but clearly there is something supported by science and psychology that's happening in terms of an intention setting that's actually making New Year's resolutions important, but this podcast is not just about New Year's resolutions, this is about goal setting generally and breaking and making habits. And as I said, 12 months after you set that New Year's resolution, just that 9% of people are still successful in their resolution. So this podcast episode is also about purely making sure that you are part of that successful 9% by giving you all the science and all the information that you need to be part of that 9%. Most 50% of you will be successful six months after your resolution, but most of you will fail in the next six months. The question is why? And I think I know the answer.
Understanding And Managing Habits
What are habits & why do we have them? (03:54)
From reading through hundreds of pages of books and studies on habits and goals in New Year's resolutions, it's clear to me that the first place to start is by explaining exactly what a habit is in the most simple way. But clearly habits are behaviors wired so deeply in our brains that we perform them almost automatically. So why do we have habits? Well, they are very handy prehistoric devices that our ancestors have given us because decision making and thinking itself consumes so much time and energy. And the truth is if you never made habits, you would be spending so much time in mental energy on routine things like how do I get to work in the morning? Or how do I get from the kitchen in my house to the living room in my house? And if you used all of your time on that, you wouldn't have the capacity to solve unique daily challenges, many of which, once upon a time, presented a real life or death threat. So your brain created habits, which are neurological pathways that fire together so frequently and successfully that your brain wired them together to save you time and energy. Once habits are formed, they're encoded in your brain forever. And this, for me, was a real revelation from reading through all the research. People tend to believe that they can make a bad habit disappear for good. The science suggests otherwise. Let me tell you a story about some rats in a maze and what this recently uncovered about how we can make and break habits. Picture the human brain as an onion composed of layer upon layer of cells. Most of our complex thinking, the things that we really ponder over and the things that really trouble us, happen on the outermost layers of the brain. That's the part of the brain that you're using to listen to me right now. And the evolutionary time scale, the outermost layer, was added fairly recently. But as you go deep inside the brain towards the center of this goal, you'll find this golf ball-sized lump of tissues. And this is called the basial ganglia. And this is where all of your habits are stored for ease. And just so I don't have to pronounce that difficult word again, I'm going to call this your habit control center, your habit control room. And because it's such a prehistoric part of the brain, that same habit control center can be found inside the brain of rats as well. So in order to study the habit control room, world leading researchers from MIT conducted experiments with rats, where they monitored the rat's brains and put them inside a T-shaped maze with some delicious chocolate hidden somewhere inside the maze. The first time the rat was put into the maze, it would wander up and down the center of our sniffing corners and scratching at the walls. It could smell the chocolate, but it couldn't quite figure out how to find it. When it reached the top of the T in the maze, it often turned to the right away from the chocolate and then wandered left, sometimes pausing for no obvious reason at all. Eventually, in all the studies, the animal found the chocolate. But there was no clear pattern in the search, the wandering behavior that happened before that. On the surface, it looked like each rat was taking a leisurely, unthinking casual stroll. But when they look at brain scans of those rats at that exact moment, it tells a completely different story. While each animal wandered through the maze for the first time, its brain in particular that habit control center in the core of the brain was working on overdrive. Each time a rat sniffed the air or scratched the wall, its brain exploded with activity as if it was analyzing each new sound, each new sight and each new sound. And although the rat looked calm, the rat's brain was ferociously processing everything. But once the rat had found the chocolate once, when placed back into the maze, the brain activity completely disappeared, the rat was now on autopilot. It no longer needed to process things. It no longer needed to think a habit had been formed. So the habit control center takes over, seemingly automatically retrieving the stored information on how to get from where it is at the start of the maze to the chocolate. And as if possessed by the habit control center, the rat glided straight to the chocolate without pause. In the same way that we all glide unconsciously to work or to the gym or to that familiar part of the house without thinking every single morning when we wake up, without having to consider the directions to get there. So because the rat was on autopilot, its brain was freed up to think about other things. So theoretically, the rat could glide to the chocolate while also pondering a complex problem it was having at work that day. By navigating the maze over and over, the rats formed what scientists now call a habit loop. And there are three steps in a habit loop. Step one is you need a cue, which in this case was a click sound they played when they dropped the rat into the maze. This cue in turn makes the habit control center activate the stored routine. And step two is a routine. The routine for the rats was the walk through the maze towards the chocolate. And step three is you need a reward, which is of course the delicious chocolate at the end of the maze. The cue routine reward is the habit loop. The habit loop happens to be the same for humans also. I've mentioned this over the years before, but my father smoked for 30 years of his life. But he only ever smoked in the car. Never at parties, never at home, never at work, only in the car. And in all honesty, it would really upset me because I think I grew up with this kind of existential feeling or worry that my dad was going to die someday because he smoked because I'd heard all the things they say about smoking in the carcinogens and why it's bad for you. Seeing your father do that was quite troubling for me as a young man. And I tried I think in such a ways to encourage him to quit. But nothing seemed to work until one day. Something I accidentally did led to him making the decision to quit smoking forever. His cue routine reward habit loop is a prime example of everything I've said. He would sit in the car and the car itself was the cue. Sometimes cues are just context or environment. And that cue caught the neurological pathway in his brain to begin to fire up in his habit control center of his brain. And seemingly without thinking as if possessed, he would automatically reach down into the car door and pull out his packet of miniature cigars, which was his routine that reached down with his routine like the rats walking through the maze. And then he'd wind the window down and light one up. And the nicotine which releases a feel good chemical in the brain called dopamine in under just 20 seconds was the reward cue craving routine reward. But then one day when I was 18 years old after dropping out of university to build my first tech startup, I was reading a book called Hooked by Nia I L who's a previous guest on this podcast that explains how big social media companies and tech companies get their users to form the habit of using their products every day and become addicted to their products every day by using the same habit loop. While I was reading that book, I happened to stop off at home back in the Southwest implement and I accidentally left it in my father's bathroom. Now, for whatever reason, like many of us, my dad loves to read while he's on the toilet. And so he ends up picking up the book, learning about that habit loop and finally understanding the cue routine and reward that was causing him to smoke. And so he went into his car some weeks later. He didn't actually tell me this until months after he'd quit smoking. He went into his car, took the cigarettes out and put these miniature lollipops, these little chuppa-chuppa lollipops in the cigar case, in the place where it was. And my father, after that, never smoked ever again. The habit loop had been interrupted, a new, less addictive habit had been formed in its place. And within that, my father's health outcomes had drastically improved. Going back to the original point about how just 9% of us will successfully keep on years' resolutions, I think the study with the rats, the maize and the chocolate, may explain why. You've probably heard the phrase "old habits die hard." And from the scientific perspective, that couldn't be more true. And I think this is good news, feel good habits. And I think this is probably bad news for your bad habits. In that study with the rats, researchers eventually removed the chocolate and the rats still ran exactly the same way through the maize. The researchers went one step further then and poisoned the chocolate with a chemical that makes the brain of the rat experience nausea. The rats still ran the exact same way through the maize, even though they stopped eating the chocolate, experiencing the reward at the end of it, the routine was still the same, the queue was still the same. Interestingly, the researchers then found a way to interfere with the rat's brain and shut off that automatic habit loop that was causing it to take the left journey through the maize. And it worked. Instead of running left through the maize, the rat started to run right through the maize. But then, interestingly, when the researchers interfered with the rat's brain again and disabled that habit loop of turning right through the maize, the rat's instantaneously went back to the previous habit of running left through the maize. And they did it at the same speed, certainty and accuracy as they'd done it previously once they'd learnt that habit. They didn't need to learn the old pathway through the maize once again. And their brain scans showed that they weren't thinking about it. They were back on autopilot. And researchers were shocked because what this says, and I quote the researchers, quote, "The original habit had never, ever really been forgotten. It was always lurking somewhere there in their brain." And I think, ladies and gentlemen, this might be one of the biggest misconceptions that people have about habits. You never get rid of them. They're never forgotten. You know, the same is true about so many things in our lives. I've reflect on that and think about some of the traumatic experiences I've had that evidence remains ingrained in our brain because it's useful for us. It's like if you go back maybe thousands of years, knowing that a lion was something to run from was something that was important for your cognition to never forget. And this for me also explains why 91% of us, that Saturnia's resolution to form a new habit or to create a new behavior, will fail within 12 months. Habits can't be broken. But and this is the good news, they can be forgotten and they can be replaced. The scientists in the rat maze chocolate study said, and I quote, "These results suggest that the brain can quickly toggle between an old habit and a new habit. What's really stunning is that old habits are totally intact and retrievable in an instant. Habits can be broken. They can be replaced. But they can't be removed forever. So when you think about the habit loop and the Q routine reward cycle, it becomes really clear why 91% of people won't keep their New Year's resolutions and why 25% of us won't even keep the resolution for one week because their old bad habits are still there. They never die. And the same cues are still there in their lives. Whether it's an environmental cue like my dad or it's a chemical cue in the case of my former partner where every time we went for a glass of wine, she got the craving to go for a cigarette. And the routine is of course the same. The cigars are still there in my dad's car door or the suites are still there in the draw downstairs in my house. And the rewards on offer are all the same too and equally delicious and compelling. So it's all well and good understanding this and even interrupting the habit cycle like my dad successfully did with those lollipops in the car drawer. But the answer to sustaining a new habit is more complicated. To get those new neurological pathways to fire together and therefore why, together scientific studies conducted all around the world in humans and animals say that you need just a little bit more. One thing we need and all the science was clear on this is we need repetition. You've heard this before. Some studies say 21 days to form a new habit. Some studies say 66 days to the truth is and I read a real plethora of research is it seems to depend. For some people it happens in a shorter period of time. For some people, depending on the habit, depending on who you are, it can take up to hundreds of days to form the new habit. The director of the University of Oregon's social and effective neuroscience lab, Elliot Berkman said, "Since habits take practice and repetition to form, the same is true when it comes to breaking them. In order to break those unwanted habits and make new ones, whatever they're going to be, I'm going to give you the five rules of making and breaking habits that have the most scientific evidence to support them from what I found, the things that resonated with me the most that I honestly didn't know. With these five rules in mind, you'll drastically, I believe, drastically increase your chances of breaking any bad habit that you have and making any new habit that you desire to have." So rule number one, stress is your puppet master.
Rule 1 - Stress is your puppet master (16:24)
Many habits, as I'm sure you can relate, including smoking or excessive sugar consumption, involve the brain's dopamine or reward system. And dopamine, if you understand what that chemical is, is a feel-good chemical that transmits signals between neurons in the brain. The first time you engage in a new rewarding behavior, you get a euphoric feeling from doing it as a result of that dopamine release. This leads to changes in both the connections between neurons in the brain and the system responsible for action. And can largely account for why we start to form bad habits in the first place or habits that we don't necessarily want. Many of these rewarding things, like sugar or substances, are powerful and chemically addictive as well, which means the habit is even harder to unanchor. And our psychological reaction to them in this day and age can be linked all the way back to evolution. In the caveman days, in the cavewoman days, meat wasn't salted. There wasn't such a thing as candy or sweets. And highly addictive substances like tobacco have only been growing in the wild for nearly 8,000 years, but it wasn't until about 2000 years ago that we started picking tobacco up and chewing it and smoking it. Russell Poldrak, who's the professor of psychology at Stanford University, says, "Our brains are not well equipped to deal with the big rush one gets from these sorts of things." And if you just look at the high street around you, humans have quite clearly designed our entire society around activities that will give us this habit forming dopamine response in our brains. For corner shop, I can get crisps. Again, that releases dopamine sweets, adult magazines, cigars, cigarettes, booze, and they sell so well because they cause that all-important dopamine release in our brain, which acts as the reward part of the habit loop. So we keep on coming back to the corner shop for more and more and more, which means more shops have popped up on the high street catering to that addictive habit loop and that reward part of the habit loop. If you think about your high street, most of the shops are selling sugar, caffeine, or highly processed foods for this very reason. And I've always wondered if highly processed foods like French fries, pizzas, cheesecakes, all of my favorite things, milkshakes trigger the same neurological habit loop as smoking or other addictive drugs. And new findings published in the journal of clinical nutrition finally suggest that they do. When I studied a group of overweight men between the ages of 18 and 35 years old, the men were given similar milkshakes. However, one had a high glycemic index and then one had a low glycemic index. The glycemic index is basically an indicator of how fast blood sugar glucose levels spike after consuming certain foods. Carbohydrates such as cookies and baked goods and pasta and white bread and white rice all have a high glycemic index. They're quickly digested while low glycemic carbohydrates which include whole grains and vegetables and fruits and legumes and unprocessed grains are broken down in a much slower way. Four hours after the two groups of men were given the milkshakes, they had an MRI brain scan which analyzed the activity in that reward part of the brain. And subjects in the experiment who consumed the high glycemic milkshakes had spikes in their blood sugar levels which then plummeted four hours later. As their blood glucose levels decreased, those participants developed excessive hunger and their brain scans demonstrated high levels of activity in a region of the brain which is associated with addiction. And this really brings me to a point from that professor at Stanford where he said, "You're more likely to do the thing you don't want to do when you're stressed out, i.e., you're more likely to go in search of that dopamine hit in the form of sugar processed food, drugs, alcohol, whatever it might be, if you're stressed out. Therefore, one of the most unobvious but important things you can do to make a new habit stick and form enough repetitions in that early phase to make the neurons fire together and wire together is to keep your stress levels low, especially in that critical early phase while you're forming that new habit loop. i.e., if you're trying to form a new habit, whatever it might be, go to the gym, whatever it might be. If you want to be in that 9% of people that have achieved their New Year's Resolution 12 months from now, don't just focus on the habit. Focus on your stress because high stress levels are one of the forces acting against your willpower as it relates to habits. And i think we can all relate. I think we can all sort of intuitively know that when we're stressed, we tend to reverse back to bad habits and that's exactly why. They've proven this over and over again in studies that stressed people make bad choices as they go in that desperate search of things that will make them feel good in the short term and because of this, stress people are very bad at delaying gratification. And being able to delay gratification as I've come to learn in my own life is one of the real keys of achieving any goal we have in life business relationships, health or fitness. So what is delayed gratification? I've heard that word for most of my life but what is it and why is it important? What is the research? What are the studies that prove the importance of it? How do I do it? Well, the definition of delayed gratification according to science is the ability to delay an impulse for an immediate reward to receive a more favorable reward at a later time. And just on that point of delayed gratification and how important it is, one of the most important studies I've ever read was from the 1960s, a famous Stanford professor named Walter Michelle began conducting a series of important studies around the concept of delayed gratification. During his experiments, Michelle and his team tested hundreds of children, most of them between the ages of four and five years old. And he revealed what we now believe to be one of the most important characteristics of success, not just in health, not just in work, but also in life. And they called this, and this is a very famous experiment. So I imagine most of you will know this experiment. They called this the Marshmallow experiment. I think certain TV shows in America have mimicked this and it's really quite funny to watch. I remember it went viral, a form of it went viral on social media a couple of years ago. The experiment began by bringing each child into a private room and sitting them down on a chair and placing one marshmallow on the table in front of them. The child was then given a choice by the researcher. The researcher said, "I'm going to leave the room for a while and I'll come back in." And you can eat this tasty marshmallow if you want to, if that's your choice. But if you don't want to eat it, and if you don't eat it, I'll give you a second one when I come back in. So the choice was simple. One treat right now, or two treats when the researcher comes back in later. The researcher left the room for 15 minutes. Some kids, as you can imagine, jumped up and put that marshmallow straight in their mouth. They'd eaten it before he'd even left the room. Others, quite hilariously, struggled around in their chair and tried to restrain themselves from eating it, but eventually gave in a few minutes later. And finally, a few of the children did manage to wait the entire time. And this study became known as the Marshmallow experiment, but it wasn't the funny reactions that made it famous. The mind-blowing and fascinating part came many, many years later. As the years rolled past, and those same children became fully formed adults, the researchers conducted a follow-up experiment, and they tracked each child's progress in a number of different areas of their life. And what they found was astonishing. The children who were willing to delay gratification and waited to receive the second marshmallow from the researcher ended up having higher exam scores later in life. They ended up having lower levels of substance abuse, lower likelihoods of childhood obesity, better social skills as reported by their parents and friends, and generally, better scores in most areas across their entire lives. And importantly, the kids that didn't reach for the marshmallow and became successful adults also had much better responses to stress. They were likely less stressed kids, and they were probably less stressed adults, and it's interesting to try and establish causation between them. Clearly, stress undermines our ability to regulate impulsivity. Stress hijacks the brain. And if you're stressed, you won't be able to delay gratification. You will continue to reach for those marshmallows, and you might not therefore achieve your goals. The researchers in the marshmallow experiment continued to follow each child for more than 40 years. And year over year over year, the group who waited patiently for the second marshmallow succeeded in every capacity of their lives that they were measuring. In other words, the series of experiments proved that our ability to delay gratification was critical fixed success in life, in our love lives, in our work, and we know that stress is a key factor preventing us from delaying gratification. You'll see this everywhere in your life. I've seen it in mine. If you're able to delay the gratification of buying sweets or desserts or cake or ice cream on your way home from work, that increases your chance of eating healthier when you get home. And there's countless other examples. Therefore, and this is, I guess, my big conclusion, therefore, and this is not obvious, but at the start of your journey to creating that new habit, you have to focus on this simple stuff that makes your life as stress free as possible. And those foundations are it's been proven by science more sleep, exercise regularly, an opt for stress reduction techniques like meditation or massages or walking or running or whatever helps you to deregulate, de-stress, decompress because scientists have shown that that alone will increase your willpower and drastically improve your chances of cementing new habits and achieving your big goals in your life. And it's funny because most people wouldn't think of sleep as an important factor in achieving most of their habits, but the science seems to be incredibly clear on this. According to world leading sleep expert, a neurologist, Kathy Goldstein, sleep plays a major factor in the success or failure of the most popular New Year's resolutions. For those trying to lose weight or to eat healthier, a lack of sleep decreases leptin, which is the hormone that makes you feel full. It also boosts something called gourline, aka the hunger hormone, which increases appetite, promotes fat storage and causes poor food choices. And for those of you like me that have goals associated with work and becoming better in your work, or you want to get a promotion or whatever it might be, the science is clear. A lack of sleep reduces your productivity. And additionally, sleep deprived people in management roles are described as less ethical, not as alert, not as motivated, and not as cheerful. And for those of you that might want to boost your social lives, a lack of sleep contributes to poor mood, markedly worse social interactions in all of the studies. And for those looking to quit smoking like my dad, a lack of sleep is tied to higher rates of nicotine dependency. Sleep is one of these foundations that we often overlook, and it's become a huge priority in my life. So if you want to make or break a new habit, rule number one in my five rules is to forget all the complicated tips and tricks and hacks and focus on those basics. You'll succeed if you feel good, if you're not overstressed and if you've slept. Quick one, Intel and I are one of the sponsors on this podcast. And in the coming weeks, I'm going to be telling you about the VPro platform. Intel VPro is built for business. Essentially, what this means to me is that it's built for a hybrid working mode, perfect for my businesses, as we quite literally are working all over the world in offices, in co-working spaces, in airports. And the VPro platform has been super helpful in allowing me to connect and collaborate seamlessly with all of my teams all around the world all of the time. It truly makes hybrid working far easier. So it's something that I think businesses will all be able to benefit from. To me, the benefits are second to none. It's industry leading performance makes it the perfect solution for any business. So if you'd like to find out more and I really think you should, head to intel.co.uk/vpro and let me know how you get on. Quick one from our longest standing sponsor, Hjor. I can't tell you over the last, and say over the last, really it's been about two and a half years. It was really post pandemic, how much my health has become such a huge priority in my life. So all has been probably the most important partner in my health journey because I've been in the board rooms, I've been to their offices, tens and tens and tens of times. I've seen how they make their decisions on nutrition. And that's why it's such a wonderful thing to be able to talk to this audience about a brand and a product that is so unbelievably linked to my values and the place I am in my life of valuing the gym, exercise, movement, my mind, my breathing and all of those things. And most importantly, my nutrition. That is the role of your plays. And so every time I get to read these ads out, I do it with such passion because I really, really believe every word I'm saying and I absolutely love the brand. So if you haven't already tried Hjor and you've been resistant to my pestering, then give it a go and let me know how you get on. Rule number two, know your cues.
Rule 2 - Know your cues (29:13)
Incredibly important and often overlooked. As we've said previously and as I've indicated from that rap maze chocolate experiment, but also in the example of my father and my ex-girlfriend, habits have three main parts, acute, eruteing and a reward. Cues are often just the context where you tend to engage in that behavior. So if you want to break a habit, step number one has to be getting crystal clear on exactly what your cues are. If you're aware of it, you're empowered to do something about it because the science shows that you're most likely to relapse to an old bad habit in the context of when you usually perform that bad habit. Doing your cues and your triggers can help you to avoid them and scientists say that if a smoker disposes of a cue, like it could be an item, a cue item like an ashtrale, something like that, that reminds them of that habit, they're significantly more likely to give up smoking. So with this in mind, capitalizing on a major life change can also help you to break or make unhealthy habits. Often people think like when you're moving to a new city or starting a new job or you know, joining a new social environment, we might think that's bad timing to start thinking about making new habits because we're so busy. But science suggests the complete opposite. Think about it. If our cues come from our environment, usually your current environment is full of hundreds of different cues and triggers, your home, your commute, your dog walk, your social context. Even your friends collectively, all of those environmental factors probably hold hundreds, even thousands of cues and triggers that lead to routines that get your rewards. And those cues and triggers and routines and rewards, those cues are holding your bad habits in place. So if you're used to lighting up a cigarette on your way home from work, for instance, or stopping off at that fast food spot on your way home from work, moving to a new city gives you a chance to break that cue. It removes the cue, which means that you can remove the routine and hopefully the reward. And that's something that I think about a lot, which is whenever I change my environment, whether it's moving into a new place or going to a new city or making new friends or doing something new, how can I use that sort of blank canvas as a way to start creating new habits? Can I put my fitness shoes in a certain obvious place so that I'm cute every day to go to the gym? Can I remove the sweet draw from my house completely and replace it with a healthy draw full of vegetables and fruits? Those kinds of things, and also when we go to new places, when we spend time abroad for prolonged periods of time, that's a great opportunity, despite what people tend to think, to really kickstart new habits and to shed old ones. Rule number three, don't focus on stopping bad habits, focus on replacing them.
Rule 3 - Don't focus on stopping bad habits, focus on breaking them (31:55)
It is, and I've experienced this over and over again in my life, it's impossibly difficult to actually stop a habit. So I delved into the science to try and figure out why and what happens when we try and stop doing a bad habit. And the science shows that focusing too much on stopping something often makes you rebound eventually and do it more. We are action-orientated creatures, not inaction-orientated creatures. And some studies have shown that the more you suppress your thoughts, the more likely you are to think about those things over and over again and therefore revert back to a bad habit. One study done in 2008 on the topic of appetite found that those who suppressed their thoughts about eating chocolate exhibited behavioral rebound effects where they consumed significantly more chocolate than those who didn't. And I tell you what, I can relate. I can think of multiple times in my life where I've made a pledge to myself to quit something. And because I'm so focused on quitting that thing, when I eventually break, maybe because I'm stressed, maybe because of another factor, I end up swinging so far the other way, because I've sort of held myself away from that thing that I craved. And similarly, a 2010 study published in the Psychological Science found that smokers who tried to restrain their thoughts about smoking ultimately wound up thinking about smoking even more. And this reminds me of a small piece of advice my driving instructor said to me when I was 18 years old, 19 years old, he said, "Steven, the car goes where your eyes are looking. If you want to avoid crashing into the cars on the side of the road, don't focus on the cars on the side of the road because you're veer towards the parked cars on the side of the road. And look forward into the distance where you want the car to go." And this seems like a fairly fitting analogy for what we're talking about. And for the third law of breaking and making habits, you end up doing the thing you're focusing on. So focus on stopping smoking, focus on the behavior you want to replace it with. The director of the University of Oregon's Social and Effective Neuroscience lab, Elliot Berkman, who I mentioned earlier, he said something which is really, really pertinent to this. If you're smoking, you tell yourself not to smoke, your brain still hears smoke. Conversely, if you tell yourself to chew gum every time you want a cigarette, your brain has a more positive action-orientated goal to focus on. And this explains why those miniature lollipops that my dad put in the side of the car when he quit smoking was such a good idea. He didn't just take the cigarettes out of the car altogether, which might have caused him to rebound and think about them a lot. He replaced them with a new action-orientated habit for his brain to latch on to and focus on which, in his case, was of course sucking lollipops. Similarly, scientists suggest that if 5pm, for example, has been linked to that glass of wine that you've been trying to knock for a while, don't just remove the glass of wine from your life. Instead, double down on hydration and make sure the fridge is stocked with seltzes and cold water and lemon, just like my dad did. As I said at the start of this podcast, doing this just once won't be enough. Forming a new habit takes time and commitment, so don't feel discouraged if it takes longer than you might expect. I remember looking at the... I think we've all grown up in this world where they say that forming a new habit takes 20-something days. People have repeated this to be over and over again. It takes 20-something days. I think when I started doing the keto diet for a little while, people said to me, "Just do it for 25 days and you'll be... The habit will stick." So I looked into some of the science around this. A 2010 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology found it took an average of 66 days for a behavior to change. But as I said at the start, this varies wildly. For some people, it's 20 days and in some cases, it was 250 days. So I think that's largely BS. I think the more important thing is actually going to be revealed in rule number five of these five rules. But before we get to number five, which it really wasn't a light bulb epiphany moment for me, I'm going to give you rule number four. For forming, making and breaking the habits you want to in 2023, rule number four is you need a better reason to quit.
Rule 4 - You need a better reason to quit (35:52)
Neuroscientists have shown that even if you replace a quote unquote "bad habit" with a better one, sometimes the original habit will have a much stronger biological reward than the thing you substituted it for. And if you think about what I said earlier, the habit's always going to be there. So even if you substitute it, like the scientist said in the rat experiment, it can so easily just toggle back. It never disappears. The pathway, the neurons have fired together. They all wired together. For example, in the case of my dad, who I keep mentioning throughout this podcast, his brain obviously knows that the lollipop is not as addictive as the nicotine he's getting from those cigars. And therefore, it won't produce the same euphoric neurological feeling in the reward centers of his brain as those cigars did. But this is where the importance of having an intrinsic motivation comes into play. And listen, an intrinsic motivation is a phrase any avid listener of this podcast has probably had me say a lot. The word intrinsic is one of my favorite phrases. It's basically a reason for doing something that is genuinely and personally important to you. Not something that you're doing for external rewards or payment. We call that an extrinsic motivation. And for me, and you've heard me bang on about this because it genuinely changed my life, my reason for getting healthy and cutting junk food out of my diet was always shallow. As I've said before, I wanted to have a six pack for summer. So for the first few months of every single year when I made that new year's resolution, I would work out every single day and I would eat healthy food obsessively until one of two things happened until either I got in shape or until summer ended. And I would immediately revert back like those rats who started running left again. I would immediately revert back to my old habit of eating junk food and avoiding any form of exercise. And it wasn't until 2020 when a certain virus spread across the world tragically killing millions of people in every corner of the world that I got to see as the most imprinting alarming example how fragile health is and how fragile life is. And that's when if I think about it now, that's when things changed in my mind, I realized like a wonderful epiphany that my health and fitness were the most important thing in my life because it is literally the first foundation. I've said this before, think of it like this table, everything you care about sits on this table, your career, your family, your goals, all of your future dreams, everything. Now you can remove any of the things on the table and you still have everything else. I can, God forbid, get rid of my dog Pablo and I still have everything else on the table. I can get rid of my career and I still have everything else that's on the table. But if I get rid of the table, everything else falls, I lose everything. My health is the table. My health is my first foundation. Everything in my life is contingent on it. So logically it must be every single day when I wake up in the morning, it must be my first priority. And that one realization changed my life. It gave me this huge powerful intrinsic reason to focus on my health, which was not just six packs in abs and chasing women or whatever it might be. And now we sit here three years later and I'm in the best shape of my life. I've managed to stick at it. Of course, I have ups and downs and peaks and troughs and whatever else. And some days when I'm in the drawer at 2am eating too much chocolate or whatever, we're all human. None of us are perfect. And I think it's important to communicate that. I have all the same struggles. Some days my motivation is low, some days it's a bit higher. But if we zoom out, and I think that's the key, if we zoom out, I've made drastically healthier choices. I'm in the best shape of my life. I've cut out a lot of the things that I know are bad for me. And that really had a bad impact on my body and my mind. And that's all because I finally got a better reason. And my point here is sometimes your good habits don't stand a chance because you don't have a good enough reason. Like me, you want a six pack and you want it for bad reasons. And my favorite quotes of all time is change happens when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of making a change. I.e. people don't change until it's easier to change than it is to stay the same. And unfortunately, this means people sometimes need a real health scare. They need a death in their family or some kind of other tragedy until they have a strong enough reason, strong enough evidence to make a change. And that is tremendously sad. It's been the case for me too many times in my life that I've had to lose something to make a change or I've had to lose something to learn the value of it. For me, the events of 2020 were that tragedy. I sincerely hope that you guys that are listening to this won't need a tragedy of your own to realize what truly matters to you or to give you that intrinsic motivation to live more aligned with the person you want to be and the values that you have. Rule number five, maybe the most important.
Rule 5 - Will power is not enough (40:51)
I'll let you decide. Rule number five, and this is again slightly controversial, slightly unconventional, is willpower is not enough. This is maybe the most fascinating study I've read of all of them because it really made me ponder and it kind of disrupted my thinking on willpower and strength and mental strength and motivation. And it's probably a huge reason why 91% of people don't stick to their resolutions. Ones of studies show that willpower is the single most important habit for individual success. And this is true. But for a long time, people thought that willpower is a skill that you could develop and that therefore remains constant forever until Mark Muravana, PhD scientist, argued that if willpower is a skill, then why does it not remain constant throughout the whole day? And then the whole week, why does willpower seem to fluctuate? He conducted an experiment to prove that willpower, like all of the muscles in our body, gets exhausted the more we use it throughout the day. In his lab, he did a fairly simple thing. He set up one bowl of freshly baked cookies and then he set up another bowl of radishes. And listen, everybody hates radishes, including me. Well, you know, chop them up, chop them up, put them in a salad. Maybe I don't hate them. They're good for you. In this example, most people would prefer hot delicious cookies than radishes, right? And the participants in the study would vied it into two groups. One group was instructed to eat the delicious cookies and ignore the radishes. The other group was instructed to ignore the delicious cookies and to eat the radishes. I know which group I would have rather been in. After five minutes into that experiment, the researchers re-entered the room and gave both groups of people a puzzle. But the thing is, the puzzle was impossible to complete. And here's what happened. The people that had eaten the cookie with their unused reservoir of willpower, because they hadn't had to use their willpower, they hadn't had to use their restraint, looked way more relaxed when they were trying to solve that impossible puzzle. And they would continue to try and solve it over and over and over again. Some worked for more than half an hour before the researcher told them to stop. On average, the cookie eaters spent almost 19 minutes trying to solve that puzzle before they eventually quit. On average, now in the case of the radish eaters with their depleted willpower because they had to practice restraint, they acted completely differently. It was a completely opposite story. They vented as they worked to try and solve that puzzle. They got frustrated, one even complained that the whole experiment was a waste of time. Some of them put their heads on the table, closed their eyes, and one of them even snapped at the researcher when she came back in. On average, the radish eaters worked for roughly eight minutes, 60% less. They tried to solve the problem of the puzzle, the impossible puzzle, for 60% less time than the cookie eaters before quitting. And when I read this study, I was shocked, but I'm a skeptic. So I tried to think of why this might be. I tried to think of other factors. And I thought of maybe it's the sugar. Maybe the sugar in the cookies are causing them to work harder. But when you look at other studies where there isn't sugar, anytime someone's practicing restraint, the same effects are seen. World power isn't just a skill, it's a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or your legs. And it gets tired. And it gets tired as it's forced to work harder. So there's less power left over for all of the other things. And since that cookie study was published, I think in 1998, numerous studies have built a case for the exact same thing, they call it the world power depletion theory. In one incredible example, which is almost hard to believe, volunteers who were asked to suppress their feelings as they watched an emotional movie gave up sooner on a test that they did after of physical stamina than volunteers who watched the film and were allowed to react in whatever way they wanted to. So if you were asked to restrain yourself, when you then did a physical exercise, people gave up sooner in the physical exercise in a similar study, which pointed at the exact same conclusion, people who were asked to suppress certain thoughts were less able to stifle laughter in a follow up test, which was designed to make them giggle. So if the science here is correct, which I suspect it is, and willpower is a limited resource, it's really obvious that the more pressure and restrictions and strain you put on yourself when you're trying to make a new habit and break old ones, the less the chance you have of achieving them, the more chance you have of rebounding and relapsing. This is why unsustainable crash diets just don't work. This is why anytime you feel like you're depriving yourself of something that you really want, you nearly always end up failing and falling into relapse. This is why in a 2014 study, almost 40% of people said they failed on their New Year's institutions, because the goal was too unsustainable or unrealistic and 10% said they failed because they had too many goals. This is why it's so important as you think about what goals you're setting to make sure that they're small enough and achievable enough to become sustainable without the need for major sacrifice, which will deplete your willpower reserves. And that is that for me was a real revelation because I think about all the habits I've tried to set. This is why less goals increase the chance of completing all of your goals because with too many big, unrealistic, sacrifice-centric goals, your willpower will be under tremendous unsustainable strain. I'm going to give you a bonus rule number six because this point I've been talking about ever since I learned to, I saw Jay Shetty earlier on and I peppered him with it and saw my assistant, I peppered her with it, I think the two guys in the room recording this podcast with me, I've peppered them with it as well, this is something that I thought was unbelievable because it's so easy, it's so simple.
Bonus rule number 6 (47:21)
It's a one second exercise which the science has shown is tremendously effective in helping you to create a new habit. So bonus rule number six, the secret power of posing a question. I'm going to give you one last short tip that I found buried within the scientific research that blew my mind and blew my mind again so much so that I had to check it was true. It's called the question behavior effect. It's an incredible, simple phenomenon in which asking people about performing a certain behavior drastically influences whether they do it in the future or not. The effect has been shown to last for more than six months after you ask a simple question. Going back to one of the real pioneering pieces of research on this, a study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology says asking the right question is the key to behavior change. So instead of telling someone else what to do or if it relates to a goal you're trying to achieve for yourself, instead of just saying what you're going to do, for example, if you want to go to the gym, instead of saying I want to go to the gym or I'm going to go to the gym, it's way more effective according to the science to ask yourself or a person a simple question which is, are you going to go to the gym? Just repeated psychological studies, if an individual isn't exhibiting healthy behavior, if they're then asked a question about that behavior or they ask themselves a question about that behavior, it serves as a reminder of their choices, direct questions in their studies, influenced people to cheat less, to exercise more, to volunteer more and to even recycle more. And the key here isn't to ask any question or to ask it in any way. Just to ask a question which encourages a definitive yes or no answer, really interestingly, researchers found that the question behavior effect was most effective and most powerful when the question was administered via computer or a paper and pencil survey. And I guess you're wondering why that works, why isn't it effective to say it to somebody, why is it better when a medium that can't respond, that has a yes or no box on it, is more effective than asking your friend or yourself the same question. And there are several theories about why the question behavior effect works, but most people believe it's related to something called cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is where your ideal self, the person you want to be, doesn't match up with your real self, which is who you actually are. So although you might want to be a healthy person, your behavior, your actions might not be aligning with that, they might not be aligning with the actions of a fit, healthy person. So if someone asks you the question or if you ask yourself the question, are you going to go to the gym today, saying no would cause a lot of mental discomfort, to ease your discomfort, you're likely going to say yes, then once you say yes, your prediction that you're going to exercise that day becomes a self fulfilling prophecy, because the question has reminded you of who you want to be, the path to becoming that person, are you going to go to the gym today, and you set an intention to walk that path. It's a simple question is a reminder. It delivers the path and it gives you the opportunity to send a clear intention to yourself and to whoever else of what you're going to do. And the reason why this works even more effectively when answering yes or no to the question, especially on a computer or pen or a paper, is because these binary choices in a yes or no box or on a computer or on a piece of paper, wherever it might be, don't allow for clarification and excuses, both of which we all know allow us to wiggle away from confronting the reality of who we want to be, the path of getting there and establishing an intention. While you might want to explain, you know, Steve, you know, I want to, I might say to myself, you know, I plan on starting to exercise next month or I'm going to stop sugar next month or I'll go to the gym once my schedule allows me to do so, a yes or no question doesn't give any room to create an excuse of justification and to deceive yourself. You need to commit. If it's yes or no, you need to commit one way or the other. So the next time you're tempted to make excuses for your behavior and we all do it either every day or to lecture someone else about what they should do differently, try this instead, try asking yourself, and I did this last night, it was 11, 30pm at night or whatever, long day. And I'm sat there in my little office upstairs and I think, I know I should go on the pellet on, I've not been on the pellet on in a little while. So I asked myself a question. I said, Stephen, are you going to go on the pellet on? Like a bit of a weirdo I replied to myself, yes. Use it on yourself, ask yourself a clear yes or no question about an area of your life that you're struggling in daily to find motivation in or if you want to help someone in an empathetic and effective way, instead of saying you should quit smoking, you can raise the question with them and ask them, are you going to quit smoking? Are you going to apply for that new job? And ask them only for a yes or no answer, if you can. Obviously, remember to have empathy because sometimes questions come with them, something which isn't revealed unless the person reads between the lines, which is judgment and we don't want to, we don't want to lead with judgment. That's not a good thing. But raising awareness, raising someone else's awareness of their behavior with this gentle confrontation of the ideal self can lead to significant behavior change. So with these six rules, here's my conclusive message to you, don't let the statistically high likelihood of failure with your goals and years resolutions put you off trying because the science also says that resolutions are effective. Set yourself up for success using the rules in this podcast. Please tell a friend. If you've got a friend in your life that is struggling with something, there's a habit they want to make or a habit they want to break, please share this podcast episode with them and hopefully it'll make change in someone's life. You know, I reflect on how that leaving that book at home accidentally had such a big accidental impact and I give all the credits to my father for actually doing it. I accidentally left the book somewhere, which I had no intention of helping anyone, but he took that book, read it and to think an idea helped him to stop smoking, which is a goal that he had for some people they might love smoking and that's also fine. All of our goals are subjective to think that he was able to shake a habit that was not good for his health is much of the reason why I'm doing this podcast, which is this realization that one idea could be any of these six principles or something else that we've shared today could have that effect on someone that I'll never meet is the most rewarding reason for staying up fairly late here at about 10 p.m. at night and doing this podcast so soon before New Year's and remember, and I think this is an important admittance, life is all about failing forward. You like me in all areas of your life or stumble, your hit hurdles, life will happen. That's completely inevitable, but hopefully with these principles in mind, you can pick yourself back up again and again and again and again and you know, I've had to do this over and over again in every habit that I've successfully formed and the habits that I'm still struggling to form until such a time when the habits you're seeking to break have been broken and the habits you're seeking to make have been made and your new behavior is creating the life that you hope and desire to live. This is a never ending journey, which is something that I've clearly come to learn from my own struggles with forming new habits and breaking old ones. But regardless of the distance, differences and distinctions, it's important to know that we are all in this together as a society, if you're more happy, productive and successful, then just buy like a connective karma for us living on the same planet that will increase the chance of my life being happy, more productive and successful. We are all in this together, so help each other out, pull each other up and have empathy for those that are struggling the most because as one of my guests said to me on this podcast this year, the truth is when we think about that person in our life that's struggling with a habit, if you were them, if you had walked their path in their life and you had their DNA, the truth is you'd be doing exactly the same thing. So the best way to demonstrate your gratitude for being more fortunate and whatever subjective regard that you might be is to lift up those who aren't. I wish you all the luck in the world for achieving your goals this year and in the spirit of the sixth bonus rule, and because I always end this podcast with a question, here's my very binary, parting yes or no question to you that hopes to use the force of the question behavior effect to help you achieve some of your habits. My parting question is are you going to achieve your goals this year? Yes or no? Thank you. Quick one, this episode is brought to you by Mercedes Benz who recently got in touch to support the Diavicio. I'm becoming quite the fan of electric cars and of course a huge fan of Mercedes Benz I have one of my own. The Mercedes Benz luxury electric range known as Mercedes EQ is at the very forefront of this industry which is what really stood out to me. If you're looking for a business car, the sustainability credentials, economic benefits, general convenience and high levels of luxury which everybody knows Mercedes Benz for in their all electric cars are truly groundbreaking. In terms of features, their next generation technology across the range is second to none. For example, there's intuitive MBUX technology with AI that learns your behavior and keeps you connected to the things that matter to you. Not to mention all Mercedes EQ cars offer exemption from the ultra low emission zone charge and London congestion charge. So if like me, you're really excited about all things electric cars and if you haven't checked out the Mercedes EQ range then such Mercedes Benz fleet to see how they can take your business to the next level. Could you do me in favor and my team here in favor which is hit that subscribe button. We're approaching 1 million subscribers and when we hit 1 million subscribers, we've been working for many months to do something very big in which we're all invited to. I'll reveal that when we hit 1 million subscribers. Thank you.