Written by : Christine Carter, Ph.D. 

You’ve Changed—Now Stick to the Program!

As we wind up Live Happy’s 90 Days to a Happier You challenge, happiness expert Christine Carter, Ph.D., offers the last word on how to untangle yourself from your phone and other digital distractions.

If you’ve been following along and doing this 90-day email detox together with Live Happy managing editor Donna Stokes, I hope you’ve found that it takes less and less willpower to stick with he changes you’ve made, and that the activities you’ve chosen to replace checking your email (or phone) all the time are now a regular part of your lifestyle. They are well on their way to becoming habits, which is great news, because habits often last a lifetime.

Here are some final tips for maintaining those changes over the long term:

1. Celebrate your success, but beware of moral licensing

As you notice how well you’re doing at staying unplugged or not working when you aren’t at work, don’t let yourself feel so good about your progress that you unleash what researchers call the “licensing effect.” The licensing effect occurs when we behave virtuously and then cancel out our good deeds by doing something naughty.

When we behave in line with our goals and values—whether it’s something as large as staying unplugged for an entire vacation or as small as not talking on the phone while checking out at the grocery store—we, ironically, risk backsliding. Consciously or unconsciously, we tend to feel that healthy or virtuous activities entitle us to partake in less-good activities.

Smokers will smoke more, for example, when they believe they’ve just taken a vitamin C tablet. Similarly, philanthropists tend to give away less money after they’ve been reminded of their humanitarian attributes. One study even found that after people buy eco-friendly products, they’re more likely to cheat and steal!

Avoid the licensing effect by reflecting on your goals and values rather than your accomplishment. Why have you decided to turn your phone off during dinner time? What larger mission are you trying to fulfill? How will you or others benefit from the habit you’re working on? Questions like these can help us avoid self-sabotage.

2. Gather your “cabinet”

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The glory of friendship is not the outstretched hand, nor the kindly smile nor the joy of companionship; it is the spiritual inspiration that comes to one when [we] discover that someone else believes in us and is willing to trust us.” When we’re making lifestyle changes, it is best not to go at it alone—we need to know who else believes in us, who trusts that the changes we’ve made are going to stick.

You don’t have to be the president to need a cabinet of close advisers for advice and inspiration, so surround yourself with people who understand what you’ve been working so hard on and who can support you going forward. I can’t underscore enough how critical this is for success.

The first and most obvious reason why we need a support team is that our cabinet can help hold us accountable, acting as a bit of external willpower when our self-control falters. This is especially important during a digital detox. Our friends know when we’re addicted to technology again—they can see the time stamp on our emails!

Most of us care what other people think of us, and when we make our intentions public in some way—even if our public is just an inner circle of close friends—our intentions have more power. Beyond that, other people can keep us on track when we’re so depleted that we no longer care what other people think. Our friends can refuse to respond to texts that come after our bedtime, for example, and they can help us shut down our computers when it’s time to take a break.

Second, there is a plethora of empirical evidence that shows we’re herd animals and we typically do what our peers do. Compelling research demonstrates that our behavior is influenced not just by our friends, but by our friends’ friends’ friends. Because the behavior of others is highly contagious, we do well when we hang out with people who already have the types of habits that we’re trying to maintain. At a minimum, this means finding people at work who are succeeding at leaving their work at work.

3. Begin again after any major change in circumstances.

Your habit will stick so long as the circumstances in which you established your new behavior remain the same. But life is full of change. You may change jobs, move to a new apartment or have a baby. Or you might do something as simple (and routine-rocking) as go on vacation. And as you’ve probably experienced, any of these things can disrupt your routine enough that your old, bad habits of working at night or checking your phone while you drive can easily slip in.

This unfortunate reality cannot be avoided, but it can be planned for. Before a big change occurs, make some notes about what worked best for you in establishing your new habits the first time. Then anticipate the new obstacles coming your way, and plan for them. What will you need to do differently under the new circumstances? And then—this can be a sour pill to swallow—begin the process of unplugging again.

Here’s the good news: You’ve already found a way to stop checking your phone or email; it’ll be much easier to re-establish these behaviors in your new circumstances than it would be to start from scratch. This is because the neural networks exist now where they didn’t before.

If you need additional support or would just like more tips, I hope you’ll join my free habit-formation coaching program! Register here.

Good luck with your new habits!

Read Christine’s first blog, 6 Steps to Unplugging From Work.

Read Christine’s second blog, 5 Ways to Stay Engaged and Keep Email at Bay.

Listen to Christine discuss Unplugging From Work on our podcast.

Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a sociologist, author, educator and senior fellow at University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. She is also the author of The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work and Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents.

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