How To Form Lasting Habits
Habits are actions that we perform automatically as part of our daily routine, triggered by cues in our environment, such as time or place. They're actions, such as making a coffee as soon as you wake up or brushing your teeth before bed.
Habits can also be used to encompass behaviours or actions which happen automatically such as driving, where the behaviour is instinctual and we are able to focus on other things simultaneously.
The ability to create new habits is key to incorporating specific actions or behaviors into our lives which will have a positive impact. If we can integrate them to a point where we no longer have to consciously think about completing them, we have formed a habit.
What makes a habit?
Habits are formed using 3 steps. They are:
Whether you realise it or not, all our current habits abide by these 3 steps.
STEP 1: Reminder
This is the trigger or the stimulus that initiates the habitual behaviour. This can be anything from the time of day, place, emotional state, stimulus from others or environment.
Example: Waking up and walking into your kitchen can trigger the habit to make a cup of coffee.
STEP 2: Routine
This is the habitual behaviour itself, the action we are prompted to perform.
Example: You make a cup of coffee in the same way you always do.
STEP 3: Reward
This is the benefit and/or enjoyment you get from performing the behaviour.
Example: You enjoy your cup of coffee, it wakes you up and you feel ready to face the day.
How do we form new habits?
If we want to form new habits within our daily lives we need to follow the 3 steps above and we need to remove as much of the decision making process as possible, habits should be automatic because when confronted with "conscious decision, we’re vulnerable, because we have a fantastic capacity to rationalise why we should not to something – we’re very, very good at that. Habits protect you against thinking,” says Bas Berplanken, professor of psychology at the University of Bath.
The best way to do this is to attach the new habit you want to form to an action you already perform each day, it can also help to add a visual stimulus. We want to make the new behaviour so easy that we can't not do it, you should be thinking “How can I make this new behavior so easy to do that I can’t say no?”
For example, if the new habit you want to form is to stretch in the morning. You can start by attaching it to brushing your teeth. After you brush your teeth you're going to stretch, to reinforce this, you can place you stretching mat in a position so that you see it as soon as you leave the bathroom.
Remember we need to make it so easy that we can't not do it, so don't start with a full blown 30 minute stretching routine. Start with one stretch only, it'll take a minute or so and it's easy and achievable. Then as the habit forms you can begin to add more stretches. Be sure to give yourself credit and celebrate success, focus on the feeling of accomplishment and the physical rewards your obtaining from stretching.
Lastly, to ensure that we give ourselves the best opportunity to succeed we want to pre plan ways to overcome any obstacles that may arise.
Example: We wake up late and don't have time to stretch.
Solution: If you are still only performing one stretch, time should not be an issue, don't allow yourself to make any excuses. Otherwise, you can utilise seated stretches during your commute or spend a couple minutes stretching as soon as you arrive at work or on your lunch break. Even if your overall time stretching is reduced, it's important to include the habit nonetheless.
Neuroscientists have traced the way we make habits to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia also plays a key role in the development of our emotions, memories and pattern recognition. Whereas, decisions are made in a different part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. As soon as a behavior becomes automatic and we form a habit, the decision-making part of your brain goes into a sort of sleep mode.
"In fact, the brain starts working less and less," says Duhigg (Charles Duhigg, Author of The Power of Habit). "The brain can almost completely shut down. ... And this is a real advantage, because it means you have all of this mental activity you can devote to something else."
That's why we find it easy to focus on a conversation whilst driving or can listen to the radio whilst parallel parking. "You can do these complex behaviors without being mentally aware of it at all," he says. "And that's because of the capacity of our basal ganglia: to take a behavior and turn it into an automatic routine."
Studies have shown that people will perform automated behaviors, such as pulling out of a driveway or brushing their teeth in exactly the same way every single time, if they're in the same environment.
How long does it take to form a new habit?
On average, it takes more than 2 months to form a new habit and for the new behavior to become automatic but this can vary widely depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances.
The more of our daily tasks we can make into habits or automatic behaviors, the more time and energy we have to devote elsewhere. If we can make stretching, exercising, drinking more water or any other positive behavior into a habit we increase the chances of maintaining this behavior throughout our life, improving our health and removing the decision making hurdle from the process.
Take a moment to ask yourself these questions today and see if you can form a new habit.
- Is there anything I've been trying to do regularly and failing?
- What behaviour could I benefit from making an automatic action?
- What new habit do I want to form?
What new habit will you be forming? Let us know!
The Springhealth Team