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Habits don’t work for everyone. Here’s what to do instead

July 10, 2022
Borderless Leadership

Habits can be a powerful tool for achieving goals and getting things done. Automatic and requiring little effort to implement, habits can help you yield the results you want, but only if you’re someone who is wired for disciplined living with a dependable schedule, says Michelle Segar, Ph.D., author of The Joy Choice.

Many of us are what Segar calls “unhabiters,” someone who juggles multiple roles and responsibilities and has a life that’s busy and unpredictable. Unhabiters need a more flexible approach to behavior change, which is why habits just don’t work.

“For decades, we’ve been taught we should be doing X, Y, and Z to form habits,” she says. “But few people talk about the limitations of habit formation for sustainable change outside of a controlled condition. Research doesn’t tend to include the full load of responsibilities that underlies successful habit formation and the ability of the habit to survive.”

Personalities, roles, and responsibilities come into play, says Segar. People who are successful with habits formation have strong willpower and are organized. They tend to stick to their plan even when they’re tempted to make impulsive choices because they are innately disciplined. And perhaps most importantly, they tend to have schedules that run according to plan without a lot of disruption.

Unhabiters, however, often have roles and responsibilities that can interrupt plans. For example, an unhabiter may have to care for children or navigate aging parents’ medical needs. These roles can add unexpected activities that derail plans. A rigid habit schedule isn’t going to work.

Some level of structure is important, says Segar. “If we don’t plan anything, it is hard to make consistent decisions,” she says. “What are you going to decide to do if you don’t have plans to do it?”

If you have the personality type or lifestyle that doesn’t support an unwavering habit loop, you can leverage your brain’s executive functioning system, also called your prefrontal cortex, says Segar. “It’s our brains management system and it has to do with what we need to succeed,” she says.

The prefrontal cortex provides three primary executive functions: working memory, which allows you to remember and work with one or two pieces of information at a time; cognitive flexibility, which lets you course correct and switch gears in the face of new information; and inhibition, which provides us with self-control.

“Our executive functions can kick in and help us, especially when things go awry,” says Segar. “We need to support it.”

Some ways we can boost our prefrontal cortex are through good nutrition, exercise, and mental games. But Segar says these measures don’t always help when we face a real-life situation and must make a choice in the moment. To address this point of conflict, Segar has developed a simple method she calls POP that helps can be used at a point of conflict—such as a distraction from your goals—to support flexible thinking.

POP stands for “pause,” “open your options,” and “pick the joy choice.”

Pause: The wisdom of the pause gives us a chance to create space between stimulus and response, says Segar. “We harness what our thinking is, and we can name the decision traps that tend to get in our way,” she says. “Taking a breath and pausing helps support our working memory.”

Open your options: Choice points are all about logistics, managing plans, and resources. It’s asking yourself, “What else could I do?” Segar recommends cultivated curiosity, which is a positive emotion that supports listening and generating of alternatives that we need to do to come up with the perfect imperfect action.

Pick the joy choice: Of your options, choose the one that makes you feel best about resolving the situation. “By definition, it’s the perfect imperfect action that lets us do something instead of nothing, so that we stay consistent, and we stand with our needs,” says Segar.

Imagine you had planned to do a 30-minute workout after work, and at 3 p.m., your boss tells you she needs you to complete a project by the end of the day. An immediate reaction might be that you have to cancel your exercise plans.

“We tend to be stuck in all-or-nothing mentality that has a tendency to derail people’s thinking,” says Segar. “It’s cognitive distortion, and we’ve been socialized to think that way. Instead of thinking situations are black and white, we can make a perfect imperfect choice.”

Start with a pause. Segar recommends using “distanced self-talk,” so calling yourself by name. For example, you could say, “Stephanie, you can figure this out and do both. Let’s come up with a new plan.”

Open your options by brainstorming alternatives. For example, you could have a shorter workout or go for a walk with the family after dinner. Then pick the joy choice by selecting the option that makes you breathe easier, says Segar.

“When we focus on inhibiting—don’t do this and don’t do that—it can easily feel like our sense of autonomy is gone,” says Segar. “Instead of trying to help people inhibit, understand how to change your experiences so you can make a better choice.”

POP is a tool to use when habits won’t work. “It helps us ensure that we keep making the consistent, in-the-moment choices that keep us in sync with ourselves and the people and things we value most,” says Segar.

By Stephanie Vozza


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