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03 July 2019
Everything You Need to Know About the Science Behind Forming Habits
The technicalities of how to break a bad habit or form a new one is actually a deeply rooted in science and psychology. So, what’s the key to making changes? And how long do they really take to implement?
How often has this been the month you’re going to start saving, eat a healthy lunch every day, to cut down on that coffee habit? How many times have you sworn you’ll drink two litres of water a day, or go for a run, or call your parents every Sunday or limit your Insta scrolling to an hour? And yet when push comes to shove, you feel powerless to put your good intentions into practice. Don't worry, you're not alone.

Despite what the influx of ‘new-year-new-you’ articles that hit our newsfeeds every January may suggest, the technicalities of how to break a bad habit or form a new one is actually a deeply rooted in science and psychology. So, what’s the key to making changes? And how long do they really take to implement?

How habits are formed?

Before anything else, it’s good to have an understanding how habits are initially formed. In his iconic book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg, a leading thinker on this topic, reasoned that there are three stages in the creation and perpetuation of a habit: the cue, the routine and the reward. “To understand your own habits, you need to identify the components of your loops. Once you have diagnosed the habit loop of a particular behavior, you can look for ways to supplant old vices with new routines.”

Take your morning commute, for example. You’ve managed to survive a sweaty tube ride without killing anyone, and now you’re making your way from the station to the office. As you stroll past the hipster coffee shop on the corner, you see a barista doing his thing. Your mind wanders to how great an iced latte would be after the pain of the tube ride. You pop in, and add a pastry to your order for good measure. And you’re right, it does wonders. So, the next morning, you repeat this process.

Before long, a routine has formed. Without even thinking about it, your walk to work has become associated with stopping to pick up a coffee, to the extent that you no longer really think about it. You just do it. And each time you do, the link strengthens a little.

Say hello to your overpriced coffee to-go habit.

How do you break a bad habit?

The first step, according to Duhigg, is to identify your triggers – what is your cue? “Is it hunger? Boredom? Low blood sugar? That you need a break before plunging into another task?” To find this out, Duhigg suggest trying to swap one habit for another: “By experimenting with different rewards, you can isolate what you are actually craving, which is essential in redesigning the habit.”

In the case of our morning coffee, this might mean getting an extra five minutes of fresh air before heading into the office. It might mean eating a piece of fruit instead. Either way, you’ll probably find that something you do will make you feel different, and in turn, alleviate the need for that coffee hit.

How do you make a good habit?

The good habits, unfortunately, tend require more effort to create than the bad ones. So, where is the best place to start when it comes to form good habits? It seems it’s a case of less is more.

In his NYT bestseller Atomic Habits, author James Clear explains how making small but steady changes every single day can have a drastic impact: “A slight change in your daily habits can guide your life to a very different destination. Making a choice that is 1 percent better or 1 percent worse seems insignificant in the moment, but over the span of moments that make up a lifetime these choices determine the difference between who you are and who you could be. Success is the product of daily habits— not once‑in‑a‑lifetime transformations.”

You can apply this principle to any kind of new habit. Instead of promising to do an hour of yoga every day, commit to just ten minutes – if you surprise yourself and do more, brilliant. Instead of stopping your scrolling spree an hour earlier, try a couple of minutes. Do this every day, and by the end of the year, you’ve made a noticeable impact.

And don’t underestimate the power of setting yourself rewards, as much as goals. Research on the impact of perceived reward on habit formation found a strong link between promised pleasure and repetitive behaviour: “Pleasure and intrinsic motivation can aid habit formation through promoting greater increase in habit strength per behaviour repetition. Perceived reward can therefore reinforce habits, beyond the impact of reward upon repetition.” (1)

How long does it take to make or break a new habit?

Once you’ve figured out your overarching goal, you know the tiny steps you’re going to take to get there, but how long does it take to form a habit? You’ve probably heard before that the magic number is 21 days - after this, you’ll find it easy. Or so traditional wisdom dictates.

This thinking came from plastic surgeon Dr Maxwell Maltz, who noted that it took patients who had experienced an amputation an average of three weeks to stop seeing a phantom limb and adjust to their new reality. Applying this principle first to himself and his own formation of habits, he went on to turn these learnings into a bestselling book, and before you know it, the 21-day logic has been applied to every type of desire behavioural shift. The fact that he highlighted that this was a minimum time appears to have been forgotten.

More recent studies have found that the truth may be slightly different. Scientists from University College London asked 96 volunteers to choose an eating, drinking or activity behaviour to carry out daily for 12 weeks. They found that It took between 18 and 254 days to reach automaticity, with participants taking an average of 66 days to reach a point where they were no longer consciously thinking about implementing their habit, it was just part of their lives (2).

All of this doesn’t mean the principle of 21 days has no merit, however. Instead, 21 days can be looked at as a starting point, a gateway into a longer change. An introduction, if you will. Sure, if you’re one of the lucky ones you might well have it cracked within this time. For the vast majority of us, however, we’ll have to keep working at it a while longer. With a 21-day mental commitment, it should be enough to start seeing small changes, to lay the groundwork for a bigger shift.

  1. Judah et al. BMC Psychology (2018) 6:62
  2. How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. Phillippa Lally, Cornelia H. M. van Jaarsveld, Henry W. W. Potts, Jane Wardle. (2009)

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