Education Week: The power of small, consistent efforts in developing habits

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BYU psychology professor Scott Braithwaite discussed how small, consistent efforts can lead to life-changing results and presented techniques to master the power of habits during BYU’s virtual Education Week.

In his recorded speech, “Harnessing the Power of Habits to Become Your Best Self,” Braithwaite gave examples of the lasting impacts small choices have over time. He explained the role of values in forming habits and provided simple ways to develop these habits.

“The power of small things over time is enormous. If you can harness the power of habits in your life to live your values, to figure out how to connect your values to your behavior, and those behaviors to habits, you’re going to have a rich, rewarding, satisfying life,” Braithwaite said.

He explained how the concept of “at bat” in baseball conveys the power of small actions over time. “At bat” is when a player gets to home plate and has the chance to hit the ball.

One “at bat” doesn’t have much significance — but that small effect multiplied over 550 times per season leads to different outcomes. It can determine which team goes to the World Series and which team is at the bottom of the standings, Braithwaite said.

“I think there’s a similar thing at work in our lives — that sometimes we underestimate the power of ‘at bats’ that might matter to us,” he said.

He gave the example of a hypothetical college student starting her freshman year. She makes a choice to show up and start conversations. Developing this habit gives her a rich social network with lots of friends and connections.

“That’s a small habit, but one that I think across many ‘at bats’ can produce really consequential outcomes,” Braithwaite said, asking viewers to think of something in their lives they could do consistently or tweak that would make a big difference.

In this screenshot from Education Week, BYU psychology professor Scott Braithwaite discusses how small and consistent efforts have impactful results. He said habits can start from turning values into specific behaviors. (BYU Continuing Education)

In forming habits, there is a connection to our values. “Values are the core things in our life that we want to pursue and make part of who we are,” Braithwaite said. Someone might value being loving. That person needs to get specific and behavioral so they can live out that value, perhaps by seeing who needs a friend at church and being that friend.

Braithwaite encouraged the audience to be “outside-in” — meaning they shouldn’t act how they feel, but rather act in accordance with their values.

When someone identifies a specific behavior they want to act out, they can work on forming a habit through simple techniques, he explained.

One way to do this is by making it easier to complete a goal. For example, if going to the gym seems like an ordeal, someone can make it easier by buying their own equipment to work out at home.

“The goal here is to make it as easy as possible so the friction against the direction you want to go is diminished,” Braithwaite said.

He added that another way to develop habits is to find decisive moments and have a plan for them. For example, when someone comes home from work, they can decide that they will spend time with their family instead of getting on their phone.

Habit stacking is another useful technique. This is when someone takes a habit they already have and adds something to it. One way to do this is by turning on a conference talk while showering, Braithwaite said.

People sometimes fall into a pattern of choosing good short-term outcomes at the expense of long-term outcomes, he said. This is explained in the acronym “TRAPS.”

Braithwaite uses the acronym TRAPS (Trigger, Response and Avoidance Pattern) to demonstrate how people behave when they want to avoid short-term consequences. He encouraged the audience to address issues in healthy ways so that they can have better long-term outcomes. (BYU Continuing Education)

TRAPS stands for Trigger, Response and Avoidance Pattern. A trigger is an upsetting event and the response is the thoughts and feelings someone has about the event. Avoidance pattern refers to the specific things people do to cope with thoughts and feelings, Braithwaite explained.

He gave an example of a trigger as someone’s spouse not spending as much time with them. The person’s response could be to think that their spouse doesn’t love them anymore, with their avoidance pattern being to make sarcastic remarks and isolate themselves.

This behavior can lead to long-term consequences like the erosion of marital quality. Instead of using an avoidance pattern, Braithwaite told viewers to intervene. In this case, the person could ask their spouse on a date.

It can be difficult for individuals to try and fix issues like this because they don’t like short-term costs. “We often have a pattern in place where we’re letting ourselves avoid short-term discomfort, even though it’s creating poorer long-term outcomes,” Braithwaite said.

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