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How does stress affect habits?

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

How does stress affect habits?

Scott Miker

The routines in our lives are solidified over time as we continue to act in the same way.  As we make decisions and behave in consistent ways we naturally start to turn those things into habits.  But how much of a factor is stress?  If we are feeling additional stress in our lives, does that take us away from our habits or make them more likely to occur?

First let us take a look at some of the performance anxiety research.  The research by Yerkes and Dodson in 1908 provides some understanding of how performance is impacted by various levels of arousal or anxiety.  

The Yerkes-Dodson curve shows us that when arousal/anxiety first starts to build up there is an improvement in performance.  But as the level reaches the midway point, it starts to slowly decrease the performance.  This gives us our first piece of information.  This shows that anxiety/arousal levels will affect performance and will do so differently based on the level of anxiety.

This research is very interesting but it doesn’t take into account habits, only performance.  In a study by Betsch, Haberstroh, Molter, and Glockner titled Oops, I did it again - Relapse Errors in Routinized Decision Making, the researchers set out to learn more about the interaction of stress on habits.  

Their research showed that stress did impact their performance.  They found that under higher levels of stress, participants would revert to their routine decision making, even though it was incorrect.  “Under severe time pressure, participants committed relapse errors in over 70% of their choices.”  The study goes on to say that “under mild time pressure relapse errors occurred in less than 30% of choices.

This is very interested because it shows us that we tend to revert to our habits in times of stress.  As stress increases we are more likely to follow our routines.  

By focusing on our habits and building the systems in our lives to take us towards our goals, we can use these findings to help achieve success.  We will all face times of stress and times where we are relatively care-free.  

If we build good habits that we will revert to in times of stress we can eliminate the slips that tend to come up when we are trying to reach a goal.  This could help us avoid getting off-track on our exercise program when we get stressed out at work.  The better we formed the routine, the more likely we will continue with it.

In Making Habits, Breaking Habits, Jeremy Dean states that “As we found out, whether habits are good or bad, under certain circumstances they are very difficult to avoid.”  He goes on to say that “Stress, in particular, drives us towards our usual, habitual response to a situation, even when we plan to do otherwise.”

We can use this to our advantage if we address the systems and habits in our lives.  If we ignore them, they will continue to surface during times of stress and our performance will likely suffer.  We will have a much more difficult time reaching goals that are directly related to our daily routines, such as fitness, health, budgeting, relationships, etc.  But if we can take control of them we can be confident that times of stress won’t take us away from our routines which will give us a much better chance of reaching our goals.