So Let’s Get Back To Basic. What Is A Habit?
According to Charles Duhigg who wrote the fantastic book “The Power of Habit” - a habit is “a behaviour that starts as a choice, and then becomes a nearly unconscious pattern.”
We can use the example of learning how to drive. It takes an incredible amount of concentration to learn all the manoeuvres, but then after a while, these steps become automatic routines, so we do them without thinking.
Why Do We Form Habits?
We form habits as a way for our brains to save effort. Think of it this way - by having “habits”, or “automatic behaviours”, it allows our minds to be more efficient.
If we thought deeply about every basic behaviour we did (e.g. move fork down towards food, lift food to mouth, open mouth etc), we’d never get anything done and would exhaust too much mental energy. So a lot of the things we think are daily decisions, are actually just habits. In fact, Duke University published a research paper that showed that 40% of what we do on a daily basis isn’t a decision, it’s habit.[Source]
How Are Habits Created?
According to Charles Duhigg, habits form after “chunking” occurs. Chunking is a process where the brain“converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine”. [Source]
There are countless habits that we do daily, from putting toothpaste on a toothbrush, to eating, getting dressed, and even checking our emails.
There’s an important process to do with forming habits that Charles Duhigg describes as a three-step “habit loop”. This consists of a cue (which is essentially a trigger that instructs your brain to enter automatic mode), then there’s the routine (the behaviour you perform), then there’s a reward, which is something that helps your brain decide if this loop is worth remembering. Repetition over time leads to the behaviour becoming more automatic.
[Image Credit: Charles Duhigg]
Can I Erase My Bad Habits?
Something to remember is that “most addictive and destructive habits have a built in reward system that requires little or no input from you”. [Source]
This could be a dopamine hit from smoking or drinking alcohol for example. So it’s the neurological response that’s reinforcing these habits, which can sometimes make them harder to break. This doesn't mean it's not possible though - you just need the right techniques!
Studies show that instead of wiping out bad habits, you need to insert a new routine/behaviour into an existing habit loop. [Source]
To understand how to do this, you should question WHY you have this habit. Charles Duhigg often cites the example of smoking.
“If you want to stop smoking, ask yourself, do you do it because you love nicotine, or because it provides a burst of stimulation, a structure to your day, a way to socialise? If you smoke because you need stimulation, studies indicate that some caffeine in the afternoon can increase the odds you’ll quit. More than three dozen studies of former smokers have found that identifying the cues and rewards they associate with cigarettes, and then choosing new routines that provide similar payoffs—a piece of Nicorette, a quick series of push-ups, or simply taking a few minutes to stretch and relax—makes it more likely they will quit.” [Source]
Stopping bad habits is all about identifying the cues and rewards, and then choosing new routines with similar payoffs. It’s about having awareness about why you do the things you do. If you love eating chocolate after your meals - what is it that you get from this? Try replacing the chocolate for a healthy snack that you enjoy.
The key thing with changing bad habits is to remember not to change too much at once, as this can be destabilising. Think of each habit you’d like to change as a project, and concentrate on each one individually.
You can also take advice from Shawn Achor who suggests we partake in the “20-second rule” - this is all about making bad habits 20 seconds harder. For example, if you watch too much TV, take the batteries out of the remote, or if you eat too many biscuits, keep them in a box at the back of the cupboard so they're hard to access.
How Long Does It Take To Form A New Habit?
There are lots of different opinions on this. Ever since a book called "Psycho-cybernetics" was released in the 1960s, many have believed it takes 21 days to form a habit, but this is a topic of contention. Some believe the sweet spot is 66 days, while other research says it depends on the individual and can be anywhere between 18 and 254 days.
What Is A Keystone Habit?
These are habits that can cause a chain reaction of positive behaviours - for example, exercise. Habitually exercising can trigger other patterns - such as eating better, drinking less alcohol, and paying more attention to your health.
How to Incorporate Positive New Habits and Replace Bad Habits - Our Top Tips:
1. Make it easy - and start small
Rather than setting yourself humongous goals (e.g. do 1 hour of exercise every day) - start small. Begin with doing 10 sit-ups, then increase this every day. Gradually build up by setting achievable "quick wins".
2. Treat yourself with rewards you love
Studies have shown that when your brain starts expecting a reward - whether it’s the endorphins after running, or even a coffee after doing a chunk of work, then your habits will become automatic. What rewards can you pair with a new habit?
3. Understand the impact of stress
Stress can lead to the pre-frontal cortex being compromised, which may mean you're more prone to giving into bad habits, so it's important to be aware of how stress can impact your behaviour and learn how to manage your stress levels. [Source]
4. Figure out your own needs
As we discussed earlier - learn WHY you’ve got certain bad habits. Is it a stress-response? Is it because you’re bored? Is it because of the social factor? Learning about why you do things, will help you swap bad habits for good habits.
5. Get an accountability buddy
Is there a friend who can do the new habit with you? Such as a running buddy? When we have some to hold us accountable to our habit, we’re more likely to stick to it.
6. Do your habit daily
Ideally, to establish a new habit, it’s something you should be doing daily. Consistency is key, so make the effort in some shape or form to carry out your habit on a daily basis.
7. Choose a trigger
Is there a trigger you can pick to help prompt your habit? For example, laying your yoga mat out or putting your running shoes by the door? Or how about every time you have lunch, you then have a 10-minute walk around the block?
8. Write your habit down
When we write things down, it can clarify thoughts and cement our actions.
Take time each day to visualise yourself acting as if you already have this habit in your life. On a subconscious level, your mind will be more accustomed to establishing this as an automatic behaviour.
10. One habit at a time
Rather than trying to completely change your life, just focus on one thing at a time. What’s it going to be?
11) Performing the habit at the same time each day
If you choose to take on a new habit and do it at the same time each day, this can help it to become part of your routine.
So there you have it - a journey into the world of habits. What new habit would you like to have in your life? Be sure to let us know on social.