Jan 29, 2016
I came across an interesting article by Phillipa Lally, in the Huffington Post (August 9, 2020), where she debunks the myth of habits taking 21 days to form. According to her, it can take anywhere from 2 months to a year to form new habits and her point is that we should, therefore, set realistic and appropriate expectations for ourselves. She adds that it is a process, and not an event, and therefore, messing up occasionally shouldn’t spell the end of our efforts. What is probably more important is that we pick ourselves up and keep at it.
Some background about the formation of habits might explain why changing our habits is such a difficult thing to do…or at least stick to!
“Habits help us through the day, eliminating the need to strategize about each tiny step involved in making a frothy latte, driving to work and other complex routines.” (MIT Tech Talk RESEARCH November 9, 2020).
The basal ganglia are responsible for the patterns (habits) in question. “The basal ganglia are critical to habits, addiction and procedural learning.
Important neural activity patterns in a specific region of the brain change when habits are formed, change again when habits are broken, but quickly re-emerge when something rekindles an extinguished habit”, according to Ann Graybiel of MIT’s McGovern Institute (Professor of Neuroscience in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences).
So what this means is that if you are trying to form a new habit, say to eat a more healthy diet, and your attempted habit is to avoid cakes and lollies, if you should see a piece of cake it will act as a trigger to rekindle the older habit.
So then how do we Re-Habit Change, to increase the likelihood of success?
Here are 7 ideas that I hope will help:
- Have a very clear purpose. This needs to be written down, or visual, with a clear understanding of what needs to change, as well as the “what’s in it for me” benefits. Consider whether there are any negative consequences for not changing, and what the implication is for you.
- Make it a daily part of your routine. There is evidence to suggest that it is harder to form a new habit when there are big gaps, or sporadic.
- Consistency further reinforces the habit, so try to stick to the same place, same time, same process, and so on.
- Set yourself up to be successful. This entails working with yourself when you are energised and anticipating how you will cope when you are tired or frazzled. The temptation to reach for a sugary snack to give you some energy will be hard to resist if you have not thought ahead and arranged healthy meals and snacks. If you have decided that you want to walk part of the way to work to increase your fitness, then only buy your tickets to the shorter stop, so that you have to walk the rest of the way.
- Small steps that piggyback on existing habits are usually more successful. The reason for this is so that the subconscious doesn’t resist, (basal ganglia) or perceive the change as a huge event. So if you’ve decided that you need to floss regularly, then putting your floss next to your toothbrush makes sense. Likewise, you can see how if you wanted to start Yoga, and it involves an early morning class but you hate getting up early, the likelihood of succeeding in changing your habit is fairly remote.
- Get a buddy. I find that if I co-opt a friend, or create an audience (family or colleagues for example) for my desired change, there is more chance of sticking to my new habit, than when I try to do it by myself. Others can motivate us by their interest, or cajole us when we lose a bit of enthusiasm.
- Milestone rewards. I believe in the power of reward and this looks very different for each of us. I do think that little rewards along the way are very motivating. If we return to the example of healthy eating, I might decide that after a week of being really careful, I can have an indulgent massage, or spend Saturday afternoon curled up with a good book, or whatever it is that represents acknowledgement of my progress, for me.
Finally, remember that change and new habits are a process and take a while, so worry less about the number of days and just take it one step at a time.