If a body is at rest or moving at a constant speed in a straight line, it will remain at rest or keep moving in a straight line at constant speed unless a force acts upon it.
It turns out that habits also behave according to Newton’s first law.
A new behavior (or habit) will continue to occur unless a force acts upon it.
Unfortunately, a slew of internal and external forces can affect whether or not we stick with a habit.
For caregivers, these forces can be things like lost eyeglasses or dentures, driving loved ones to unexpected doctor appointments, illnesses that spring up out of nowhere, or a nighttime wandering episode that steals a night of good sleep. These forces can stop a new habit right in its tracks by sapping willpower and motivation, or by creating time crunches and unexpected schedule changes.
How to stick to a new habit:
Get immediate satisfaction through a reinforcement reward that:
- Happens at the end of the behavior
- Feels good in the moment
- Aligns with your desired identity
Bring in the reinforcements: Satisfaction and immediate reward
Because habits are subject to Newton’s first law, they need to be heavily reinforced with buffers that will keep them afloat when forces outside our control try to stop them from continuing.
- The behavior is satisfying.
- The behavior is immediately rewarded.
We’re more likely to stick to a new habit if the new behavior is satisfying. According to the human brain, satisfying experiences are worth repeating; evolution has ensured this to be the case.
Except for one caveat: The satisfaction must be immediate.
Our brains are evolved to prefer satisfying experiences; they’re also geared to prefer fast payoffs over long-term ones. We can thank our hunter-gathering ancestors for this preference, as they were more concerned about securing their next meal than they were about squirreling money away in their IRA accounts.
Behavioral economists refer to our tendency to prefer rewards in the present more than the future as “time inconsistency.” Our evaluation of the value of a reward is inconsistent across time; it decreases as time goes on.
The good news is there is a simple solution to the dilemma: Use instant gratification to your advantage and immediately reward the behavior with a short-term reinforcement reward.
How to construct a powerful short-term reinforcement reward
A short-term reinforcement reward must meet three criteria, according to Clear:
- It must happen at the end of the behavior.
- It must feel good in the moment.
- It must align with your desired identity.
Make sure it happens at the end of the behavior
According to Clear, we must reward ourselves right after the behavior (as opposed to before or during the behavior) because science says we remember the end of behavior more than other phases.
Reinforcement is a useful tool here—using an immediate reward to increase the rate of behavior. Like habit stacking ties your habit to an immediate cue, reinforcement will tie your habit to an immediate reward.
Reinforcement is particularly effective for habits of avoidance when the habit is an absence of behavior (e.g., not shopping for new purses, abstaining from alcohol for a month, or nixing online shopping). These habits are particularly difficult to find satisfaction in because there is an absence of both action and tangible reward.
In these cases, Clear recommends making avoidance visible. For example, open a savings account but label it as something you desire (e.g., beach vacation, spa weekend, etc.). Every time you skip an impulse buy, or pass on a purse or happy hour, immediately transfer that same amount of money into the savings account. Eventually you’ll have enough for that beach vacation or spa weekend, and your short-term reinforcement reward will be replaced by a tangible, more meaningful reward.
Make sure it feels good in the moment
Clear recommends focusing on how the habit makes you feel in terms of energy and mood instead of the result of the habit.
The positive feeling a habit brings about is what closes the habit’s feedback loop; positive feelings teach the brain the behavior is worth repeating in response to the cue.
The feeling gives you that immediate reason to keep working hard and repeat the habit in the future.
Make sure it aligns with your desired identity
“Incentives can start a habit,” Clear writes. “Identity sustains a habit.”
Even when a short-term reinforcement reward checks all the right boxes – instant, happens at the end of a behavior, and feels good in the moment – it can only reinforce a habit for so long before its impact fizzles. This diminishing impact can be postponed if the short-term reinforcement reward aligns with your long-term desired identity.
For example, if your end goal is to save money, then a short-term reinforcement reward of a spending spree at the end of a latte-free week conflicts with your desired identity—just like rewarding yourself with dessert for going to the gym conflicts with the long-term desired identity of being a healthy person. Instead, maybe reward yourself with a massage or spa treatment or something health-oriented.
For a habit to be successful, the “identity factor” of the short-term reinforcement reward needs to eventually become the primary reinforcer, and this will only happen if your reward aligns with your desired identity.
As a caregiver, you’re already a pro at dedication through diversity; you’ve proven this trait through your care and service to your loved one. If you apply the same tenacity and resolve to habits, you’ll be successful, especially if you use the tips above to create effective short-term reinforcement rewards.