Dr Heather McKee is Europe’s leading lifestyle behavior change specialist who lives in Dublin in Ireland. With over 10 years in academia, her work has been published in world-leading research journals as well as over 300 media articles such as Vogue, Time magazine, and The Times. We talk about how habits are made, how they can be changed, and the difference between willpower and skill power. We also uncover some myths about changing habits that have been going around for quite some time.
I help people create long-lasting habits. I love speaking, it is a beautiful way of engaging a lot of people. There were a lot of people asking how do they lose weight while dieting, how do I create long-term habits, and how do I maintain what actually lasts long. That’s when I realized there is an appetite for it. Then I thought she can actually help people through translating research into talks, courses and helping program companies as well. So how can we not just get excited by habits change but can we find joy in our habits.
Are we genetics attached to behaviors?
They say about 50% can be encoded by your genes and 50% can be because of your environment and lifestyle. But the environment can be a role model behavior because of your parents and people around you. Being surrounded by unhealthy food it's more difficult than sticking with a healthy diet because your triggers around you are already unhealthy. Bio genetics do play a role but it's unhelpful for us to focus on genetics. A lot of us feel like we need to be in certain shapes because of what size we are. But if we link to genetics and accept this is the way I am, it can be very helpful. But if you become a victim of your genetics and think like, oh my parents have this so I will end up this way, it is not true we are not helpless to our genetics. Because 50% can be related to your lifestyle and your environment so it’s quite important that we decide that you can take action on elements that come to your lifestyle.
It is very hard to create habits in an environment that is unsupported in habits. That includes your social environment too, that can be quite difficult when people move in with a new partner or a new room mate and new persons in your life and the key thing there is we rely on the other person making changes rather than actually empower changes. One thing we always struggle with is, we don’t tell what kind of support we need. So words are encouraging the most, for example join the person to help the other to support. Tell them what works for you. But if you don’t know how, do it with support orders. What kind of support works for you, what empowers you the most and what supports you the most?
You can also enable the person to feel safe, you do not try to change or judge them.
What defines a habit?
Habits are a form of contact depending repetition. That means you do the same things in the same circumstances a lot of times and it becomes a habit. They are formed through a trigger, so you respond in reward. For instance, you are inpatient and you scroll on social media and your reward is that you relieve that feeling of inpatient. But the thing is, the more you do things in a particular circumstance, the more likely it is to hardwire it into your brains. Your brains are in general always for short cuts. The non conscious piece is that you do things automatically and you don’t even think about it anymore. The more we associate the particular incident with certain behaviors, the more we create a habit.
All habits have his own function because they are all driven by a certain behavior. One thing you can do is to track your temptations. If you stick to a healthy lifestyle, track when you get tempted to go off track. If you start to see where it’s coming from then you know what to do about it. Maybe you can find your own solutions to adjust things in your lifestyle, is there an alternative behavior? If you try to replace habits with unhelpful habits it has the same reward, because you get the same satisfaction. But it can be more effective to replace healthy habits, it is easier to engage.
Where do habits start?
It is the repetition, the more you repeat something the more your brain thinks like this is how we do it and it becomes something you do automatically. A lot of people think you create habits if you repeat something for a long term time like 22 days, that is more a myth. Research shows that you create a habit in about 66 and 122 days to reach this phase of automaticity. But that also depends on how complex your habit is, that is why it is so important to create simple habits. Because the more complexity there is in your habits the harder it is for your brain to repeat the habit.
What is will power when it comes to changing habits?
It takes some discipline at the start, but over time will power is very much overrated. The more goals we add in the more we take in away from our goal. That is because will power doesn’t last forever. Willpower is like a muscle, for instance if I go to the gym for 7 days I just train my bicep for the next 7 days. But if I go once a week, I will give myself the rest and recovery I need. When we actually have an attempt to lose weight or we are trying to change our habits we do too much too quickly and it is too unmanageable for our brain, we ask ourselves too much. When we rely more on our skill power than our will power. Skill power setting small changes, skill like tracking our habits, tracking our temptations of understanding when we give in to these the most atemption, skill power is like finding joyful habits. Our skills are much more enduring and much more lasting than will power. Will power vanish too quickly and skill power last for longer. It is not about willpower, it is about your skill power and having those skills in replace. The most who are successful for the long term are the ones who use will power the least. They actually have a strong will power, but they never use it. That is because they engineer their environment and life, they don’t give themselves too much to do at once. Eventually we all gonna fail if we rely on our will power.
When do you use your skill power and when do you use your will power?
Skill power is when you reframe things in a way you are consistent to your goals and that are habits too. The more often you say no to those thoughts the more you say this is inconsistent with my goals, I rather do this. For example every time you wake up, you say “I don’t want to go” then you say “oh actually, I do want to go”, it gives you the feeling of benefit and that is relying on your skill power instead of pushing yourself to do it and then the difference in your mindset shifts. You not relying on will power but relying on to reframe it to skill power. The more often you think like that the more often it will become a habit.
But will power also plays a role, because eventually you need to feel an amount of willpower. The key is to just not use that only. In the morning you aren’t affected by your willpower but in the evening you have more triggers and for example you have to stay late for work or there might be bad weather, there are a lot more barriers to overcome. A skill is understanding what time of day works best for you. It takes some experimentation to get to that point, but when you start to understand this is the time at least I'm not making excuses, at least it feels like I don’t have to force myself. that becomes a whole different perspective, you make it easier for yourself and that is a skill.
Are the changing steps equally as an individual and a company?
It is important to not put too much pressure on ourselves all at once. What comes back in research is that small changes are repeated over time and you can make it bigger and bigger when you go on but they don’t affect you negatively but instead they can reinforce your feeling of doing well. If you are more optimistic it engages you more over time. You are more likely to reap this habit and behavior.
It is important for companies to have a “why? Why is it so important to engrave this habit? If your motivation is because of others then it eventually negatives your motivation. But if you approach a goal and think “what does it give me back? “What contribution does it make to my life?” “How does this allow me to be more myself or more confident?” If you find your “why” you can find your way.
How does the brain create or change new habits?
Like mentioned earlier it’s about replacing that habit with another habit that is similar. Your brain is going to ask you this is what we normally do and it starts graving if you don’t do it, that is why it is the key, to break the habit is to keep the routine the same but change what behavior you are craving for. Keep the same reward in mind but experiment in different ways. You have to find something that is interesting, fun and engaging enough that serves that reward. Over time you see that your habits are replaced because of a new time but it is important to keep the award.
Where to find Heather McKee?
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