The secret behind forming habits

We all made resolutions to pick up healthy new habits this year, and drop a few pesky old unhealthy ones.

We promise ourselves we’re going to diet, exercise, read, learn a language, wake up early, be a better parent…then slack off around day 3.

So, this post is for anyone wanting to make new, healthier habits. Yes, I’m looking at you.

We all know what we should be doing. In fact, the most common New Year’s Resolutions are:

  • Eat healthier
  • Lose weight
  • Exercise more
  • Save money
  • Quit smoking
  • Learn a new skill or hobby

The thing is, it’s tough to convince ourselves to do it when there are other, naughtier, instant gratification options.
When we consciously choose to do something, we have a little rational conversation in our heads.

“Exercise!”
“No, I’m tired.”
“You said you wanted to get fit though.”
“Yeah but I need a rest day to build muscles.”
“Fair enough, you’ve got me there. Back to the couch then.”

But by building a habit you bypass that little negotiation and find yourself just doing it.

This is something fancy-habit-researching scientists refer to as automaticity– you don’t need to fight for willpower, you just do it without thinking.

How long does it really take to form a habit?

We’ve all heard the famous “it takes 21 days to make or break a habit”

This is thanks to Dr. Maxwell Waltz who in the 1960s found it generally takes three weeks to adjust to new circumstances.

But scientists have gone in on this with new experiments specifically around healthy-habit adoption and found….it’s more like 66 days.

Yep, 10 weeks to make or break a habit.

This info might feel even more unfair when you hear it just takes a handful of repetitions to pick up a bad habit- like pizza or cigarettes or drugs.

But yeah, they had all sorts of people try to adopt healthy habits like drinking more water, exercising before dinner, eating more fruit, and they found that if people did the action daily for 10 weeks, they stopped having to convince themself and just did it.

A little good news for you – skipping one day didn’t stop someone from adopting the new habit!

If someone skipped one day, it was fine. Two or three days in a row? You’re gonna have to start from scratch.

Myth- it takes 21 days to make or break a habit

The science behind habits

If you want to implement some new habits, it’s pretty important to understand how they work and why develop them.

The basic system is:
1. Cue
2. Action
3. Reward

Scientists used a rat in a maze to study the habit.

They’d ring a bell, the rat would know to start running, then it would find the chocolate.

They do this enough times, and the rat figures out how to go straight to the chocolate, it memorises the route bloody quickly.

The cue is the bell, the action is navigating the maze, and the reward is the chocolate.

Three steps to forming a habit

This is why bad habits form so much quicker; all the guilty pleasures in life like sugar, alcohol, and drugs stimulate dopamine production instantaneously.

A pretty common example would be a stressful day at work, so you grab a pizza, which makes you feel great because it’s a classic comfort food.

You’ve got your cue (stress), action (eating crap), and reward (dopamine- the hormone that creates happiness).

So what’s missing in implementing healthy habits, is the dopamine factor.

A study showed that having a small amount of dark chocolate (note – SMALL) after a workout caused people’s brains to associate exercise with dopamine. Even after a few months when they stopped having the chocolate, the effects lasted and they were 58% more likely to stick to their workout routine.

If you can add some kind of reward to all your habits, you’ll literally be hacking your brain to create that automacity quicker.

The key is to not make your reward outweigh your new positive, healthy habits- no Big Macs because you did one push up!

Everyday tips to forming habits.

Accountability.

One of the best ways to achieve anything is to be held accountable for your actions. In my office, we gather together every morning and we tell our team exactly what we’re going to do that day, and whether or not we did what we said we would yesterday. This group accountability is unbeatable!

Reward yourself.

Habits become ingrained in our brain faster when dopamine is produced, it tells your brain that this action is important and good for you. Try something innocent, like a bubble bath or an episode of your favourite show.

Replacing habits is easier than eradicating them.

Rather than swearing off all takeaway ever, try ordering something healthy, or at least cooking your cheat meal at home so it’s not processed. You’ll find this so much easier to stick to, and it helps build a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle in general.

Switch things up.

Did you know it’s easier to create a new habit when you’re on vacation? This is because you’re in an environment where you have very few existing cues, so you’re already in the right headspace to create new ones. Try to get the momentum going when you’re on holiday next, and keep it rolling into everyday life.

This goes for any major life event – a new job, moving house, even a new haircut. Leverage the fresh-start-clean-slate of it all, and try to start your new habits then. You’re way more likely to keep them going.

Know your triggers, then figure out how to overcome them.

It’s always good to get to the root of the issue. Are you snacking out of boredom? Having a smoke because you need to clear your head for a minute? Find out what’s driving you, then create a new habit. Habit expert Charles Duhigg stopped snacking on cookies by getting up and chatting with coworkers instead. Loads of smokers chew gum instead, to soothe any fidgeting. Once you figure out the why, you can implement the what.

I’m curious, what goals, resolutions, and habits are you trying to achieve? Let me know in the comments below, and let me know if you’ll be implementing any of these tips!

FREE DOWNLOAD: 2020 Goal Planner Workbook

Kerwin Rae
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