Truths and myths about habit formation

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Have you ever tried to eat healthier, exercise more, keep a tidier home, save more money, or practice positive thinking?

Ever fail to keep it up?

If so, it wasn’t for lack of knowledge—you knew that it was good for you—or motivation—you sincerely wanted to do it.

No, what probably happened is you didn’t succeed at turning the behavior into a habit.

When behavior becomes habit, something magical happens: what was once effortful or painful is transformed into something automatic, addictive even.

There’s a four-step process to forming a new habit[1]. If your past attempts to create a habit didn’t work, it’s likely you were missing one of these elements.

  1. Choose a good behavior. For example, maybe you want to get in the habit of walking for 30 minutes. It’s important that you choose the behaviour carefully, and that it’s something you really want to do. That way, you’ll be highly motivated[2]. It’s also critical to choose a behavior that’s manageably small[3]. For a person who is currently sedentary, walking for 30 minutes a day might be doable, but running for an hour is likely too big a stretch.
  2. Decide on a trigger. For example, getting home from work might be your cue that it’s time to walk. It’s best if your trigger is a regularly occurring situation, rather than, say, a cellphone reminder[4].
  3. Choose a reward. This could be something tangible you give to yourself after doing the desired behavior, such as a food you like (e.g., chocolate), or it could be something intrinsic to the behavior itself (e.g., “I love the fresh air and stress relief I get from walking after work, and the companionship when I do this with my friend”).
  4. Practice your routine. Habits don’t form overnight. You need to engage in the behavior when the trigger is present, and get the reward afterward, regularly and repeatedly.

It’s this last piece where a lot of would-be habit formers fall short. There’s a myth that it takes 21 days to form a new habit, which can lead people to give up too early if they don’t see results by then[3].

So how long does it take?

In a study[2] that tried to answer this question, participants were asked to choose a healthy behavior that they wanted to make into a habit, and then engage in this behavior every day, in the same context, for several weeks.

Some people chose relatively easy behaviors, like drinking a glass of water after lunch. Others chose more difficult behaviors, like doing 50 sit-ups after their morning coffee. At the end of each day, they indicated whether they’d done the behavior, and how automatic it felt if they had.

Among those who consistently did their chosen behavior, it took about 66 days, on average, for the behavior to feel automatic. Exercise behaviors took longer—91 days—than eating (65 days) or drinking (59 days) behaviors.

Compared to the mythical 21 days, these numbers may sound torturously long to some people.

But remember, a good habit has the potential to completely transform your life. And forming one good habit, such as exercising, can spark a chain reaction leading to other good habits, such as eating better or being more disciplined at work[1].

To get there, you need to establish a good routine of trigger-behavior-reward. Then, you need to push yourself to stick with the routine for 2 to 3 months, or until the healthy behavior becomes second nature.

?References?

1. Duhigg, C. (2012) The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. New York: Random House.
2. Gardner, B., & Lally, P. (2013). Does intrinsic motivation strengthen physical activity habit? Modeling relationships between self-determination, past behaviour, and habit strength. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 36, 488-497.
3. Gardner, B., Lally, P., Wardle, J. (2012). Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice. British Journal of General Practice, 62, 664-666.
4. Stawarz, K., Cox, A.L., & Blandford, A. (2015). Beyond self-tracking and reminders: Designing smartphone apps that support habit formation. Proceedings of the 2015 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI-2015), 2653–2662. New York: ACM.
5. Lally, P., Van Jaarsveld, C.H.M., Potts, H.W.W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 998-1009.