The mom stared, relieved and bewildered. Her son had taken the trash out. She didn't even have to ask, he just took it out. Trash day is tomorrow, her son remembered, and he took the trash out without needing to be reminded. He actually did it. He took the trash out. How many times had she told him to take the trash out over the past year? Too many to count. She couldn’t believe it. He finally did it.
We learn through repetition. Most of us can identify with both the mother and son in the vignette. Truthfully, my mother could have told this story about me. We humans are a stubborn, thickheaded species and can be slow to learn.
The Science of Repetition
Scientists have revealed that much of what we do each day is automatic, meaning we don’t have to think about actions like showering, brushing our teeth, or putting on a pot of coffee before we do them (Lally, Van Jaarsveld, Potts, & Wardle, 2010). Repetition builds automaticity and it doesn’t discriminate between unhealthy and healthy behaviors, leading some to unconsciously grab the morning doughnut while others reflexively reach for a yogurt for breakfast. Our daily routine feels natural and becomes instinctive because we have repeated it hundreds or thousands of times, regardless of how good it is for us.
Breaking Bad Habits
If we pick up bad habits through repetition, why isn’t it easier to establish good ones using the same process? It’s hard because we humans are often impatient and give up too quickly. Anyone who has gone to the gym each day during the month of January only to stop going by the first week of February can tell you that learning through repetition must be a drawn out process. After all, that exercise-filled month seemed like forever. Unfortunately, repeating a behavior for a week, month, or year is often not long enough to make a new behavior automatic. Once something becomes a habit, even if that something is bad like smoking or not exercising, it can become a part of us that won’t go away without a fight. Since what we repeatedly do everyday predicts how healthy we are (see Neal, Wood, & Quinn, 2006 for a review), we need to commit to a long battle if we are going to replace a bad habit with a good one.
Failures vs. Setbacks
When we try to make changes in our lives, we should remember to be kind to ourselves when we’re not perfect. We can get frustrated at first when we slip back into bad habits after a few hours, days, or weeks of healthy living. It’s easy to beat ourselves up in moments like that—we are quick to call it failure. What I suggest is that we choose to see imperfection as a setback instead of a defeat. If we’re defeated, that’s it. It’s over. There’s no use making an attempt to change because we’re done. We quit after a defeat. If we choose to look at imperfection as a setback we reevaluate. We rethink our behavior. We retrace our steps to see where we went wrong. We learn from a setback and try again.
Repetition Leads to Discovery
Repetition is an essential part of the discovery process. Medications are tested on many people across multiple studies before we know they are effective treatments for an illness. Cars are crashed repeatedly in a lab before we discover how safe they are to drive. Many of us date person after person before we learn what it is we are looking for in our significant other.
Therapy on Repeat
I repeat myself a lot in therapy. A few years ago, I worked with a woman struggling with substance abuse and a lifelong history of depression and anxiety. She was a dedicated client, showing up weekly for months. About three months in to therapy, I said something to her that I must have said at least twice each week over the course of 12 sessions. For whatever reason, on that particular day, it resonated with her. “Why haven’t you ever said that before?” she asked. Her question would have been maddening if I couldn’t so easily relate to her need to hear something over and over again before finally taking it in. Over time, she established good habits and overcame many of her struggles.
Reading This Blog
This blog, like life itself, will be an exercise in repetition. The plan is to publish a blog post once a week for the foreseeable future. Because this blog will primarily cover topics related to couple and family relationships, psychology, and social science, repetition is inevitable. For some of you, reading this blog will become a habit. I hope you find it to be an entertaining and informative one.