Understand this Simple Theory to Actually Start Changing Your Habits | The Habit Discontinuity Effect
When you create a habit, it can become deeply ingrained, stick around for life, and be incredibly hard to break. That doesn’t sound encouraging… But, what if I told you there is in fact one simple change that you can make to break those pesky bad habits?!
The Habit Discontinuity Effect
Understanding the habit discontinuity effect is one of the keys to breaking a habit. And yes I did say “one of”. If you want to learn about other keys to breaking a habit, click here for a full breakdown the components of habit.
According to a 2018 publication by Carden and Wood, habit discontinuity effect says that “behavior change interventions are more effective during life course changes that disrupt habit cues, such as moving house, having a child, and changing jobs” (1). This definition reiterates how context is absolutely vital to habit.
Let’s recall the habit formula: H(f) = (c + ro + re)rep
Your cue and your reward are the two things that must occur in your environment for habit to actually happen. If you look at the formula again, you’ll see that the cue and the reward are the two components that happen immediately before and immediately after the action you take — that action is the behaviour that you want to automate. That said, a habit is always an interaction between the individual taking the action and their environment; habits are contextual.
Change your Environment, Change your Habits ... Change your Life
Studies have shown that in order to change a deeply ingrained habit, you must start by becoming aware of your environment, then changing it. A 2016 field experiment by Verplanken assessed this habit discontinuity effect (2). They sampled 800 households, half of which moved houses within the past 6 months. Each household received an informational to implement 25 new behaviour changes including things that would help conserve water, save gas, and reduce waste. They found that the behaviour changes were more effective for those who had relocated within the last 3 months. Researchers found that by people changing their environment and essentially removing habit-signaling cues from their life, a “window of opportunity” was presented and people could more easily adopt new behaviours and goals (2).
Another 2016 study by Kirchner and colleagues studied the habit discontinuity effect on smokers (3). They tracked participants’ locations using their smart phones and found that “exposure to point-of-sale tobacco cues” increased relapse rates. Exposure to smoking cues made smokers want to smoke, even when they were not experiencing cravings (3). What you can understand from this study is “environmental cues … activate a habitual response in mind, even when people are not desiring to act.”
So next time you think you can use will power to stop from eating your favourite treat, you might want to think again! If you want to learn more about habit and will power, check out this video here.
Why is it important to be aware of your bad habits?
You probably don’t realize it, but bad habits (i.e. automated micro-behaviours) seriously impede the steps we take on a daily basis to create fulfilment or success in our lives.
If we look at the Carden and Wood paper again, they discuss a series of experiments where participants were rewarded by clicking on coloured circles on a computer screen. As soon as participants were told to click on a different object on the screen, the coloured circles now distracted them from selecting the correct object.
Remember that bad habits and the environmental cues that trigger them serve as time wasters and energy wasters. Even if you are able to use willpower to minimize time spent doing a bad habit, such as less screen time or eating a half a bag of chips instead of a full bag, those moments of deliberation and minor engagement still take up time. And if you’re doing this through out the day, your bad habits are still having an influence over you. If you can spend just two week identifying the context of one bad habit, you will be able to change our environment then override your bad habit with a good one.
If you have no idea where to start when it comes to identifying your habit-activating contexts, that is exactly what I do in my coaching sessions. If you want to learn more about how we can work together then click the link here to read about my self-paced habit course or you can book a consultation using the link below.
As always, I hope you have a great day and don’t forget to make this the Year of You!