Everything plus one

Four models concerning the theory of individual habit formation:

The commonalities between these four models is easy to detect, even if you rely only upon my simplistic descriptions. A commonality that is slightly harder to detect, however, concerns the number of habits that are changeable at any one time.

A foundational assumption of the habit formation domain is that habit (re)formation is most likely to succeed when only one habit at a time is changed or learned. It is possible to change multiple habits at once but the likelihood of “success” drops dramatically for every extra attempted change. This seems sensible and correct, assuming habit alteration takes place on a ceteris parabus canvas. What if it doesn’t?

My speculation: if everything is changing, every extra attempted change increases the likelihood of successful new habit formation.

Starting a new job (especially if it requires changes in established norms of space and time), moving house (especially if it means moving to a whole new town, region or country), and exiting a significant romantic relationship all classify as scenarios where (i)everything is changing. There are likely more.

Let’s take an extreme example. Imagine someone who is moving to a new house in a new part of the country and starting a new job because they’re fleeing from the tendrils of a messy break-up. So much has already changed in their life that adding one more thing isn’t going to cause much more disruption. This sad soul has never woken up in the morning and done a yoga flow? They can now. They’ve never abstained from drinking during the week? This is their chance. They’ve never engaged in adult education or tried learning a new craft in the evening. Smell that opportunity!

On a ceteris parabus canvas, adopting a morning yoga habit, changing an alcohol consumption habit and adding in a new and explicit learning behaviour is likely to fail. On a canvas where everything is changing, novel habits and behaviours are nothing more than features of a new environment which already requires major adaptation and orientation.

Of course, there’s a hidden aspect to such aggressive change; it will likely involve significant discomfort. Discomfort that could even be experienced as pain. Human minds (especially mature adults) are wired to seek solace in the continuation of the status quo. Which means a modification is in order…

My speculation, vers. 2: if everything is changing, every extra attempted change increases the likelihood of successful new habit formation (provided one can tolerate the associated psychological disorientation).