Whether we are aware of it or not, we engage in habits on a daily basis – be it, from having our morning coffee to reading a book before bed. These engrained habits are often completed easily and without conscious awareness, we just do it because we do. However, when we start to put more thought into the matter of habit forming, for example, we have just read a health magazine telling us we should go for a run every day, or telling us that in order to live a better life, we need to stop drinking coffee, people often encounter difficulties.
When we attempt to make a habit, we are wanting to make a new behaviour automatic – this process of automaticity, has been proven to take 66 days by Phillipa Lally. However, this number should not deter anyone, performing a habit or going about changing a behaviour for 66 days; it is achievable for all.
So how do we go about changing or forming new habits?
1. Less is more – don’t overburden yourself
It is often a simple task to idealise new habits. However, consequently, it is easier to bite off more than we can chew so to speak; we overburden ourselves with a mammoth habit we want to change. To set oneself a task, for example to consume less sugar, it is important to break the goal down into both smaller actions that project us forward to the final goal through smaller steps and time frames.
Approaching small components of our goals has been proven to lead to greater levels of automaticity than one more complex task. Verplanken in his recent study found that complex behaviours lead to lower levels of automaticity and habit formation than more basic behaviours. As Wood found in his study, this occurs because more complex behaviours require more thought about the task during the activity than simple tasks. Because the goal of habit formation is to make a behaviour more automatic, the more simple the behaviour, the quicker and easier it is to become automatic. Take the example of learning a new language. Rather than deciding to become bilingual, a task that would take years of exposure, it is much easier to break the components down of the language, for example, learn the days of the week first.
Most people will have heard of Pavlov’s famous example of classical conditioning in which a dog learns to salivate to a tone, instead of food, after several pairings. In a similar way to Pavlov’s conditioning with dogs, humans learn to acquire habits through such associations. In fact, habits are merely a strengthening of associations between a situation and an action. That is, by repeating a certain situational cue, followed by an action, a behaviour can become unintentional and natural. Whilst we ourselves are not interested in training a dog to salivate to food, we can take a similar approach to forming better habits or removing negative habits.
Forming a habit is similar to brushing our teeth, by devoting ourselves to the habit everyday we can aid in the automaticity process. Just as forgetting to brush your teeth for one day does not automatically mean your teeth fall out, missing a single opportunity to practice a new habit, is not catastrophic or detrimental when it comes to forming new habits. Studies have shown that whilst habit formation is reliant on repetition, failing to perform the behaviour on unique occurrences will not mean all your efforts are in void.
Studies have found that only when lapses occur on a weekly basis, does this lead to a decrease in the acquisition and formation of habits.
Many people believe that habit formation is reliant on reinforcement or rewards. However, studies have found that rewards given externally, be it from others, are not essential to forming habits. Rather, it is rewards given intrinsically from the individual by taking the pledge to change a habit that has more value. In such a way, when it comes to forming or removing habits, it is important to pick habits that are important to you, the individual, not what others say you should change in order to be accepted. Similarly, by picking goals that are closer to home to the individual, there is more chance that the individual will continue it.
When we go about forming new habits, we need to plan the actions we want to change and then complete these behaviours with repetition until they become both more efficient, and occur with less thought. As easily as we automatically check facebook every morning, so too can we form habits through simple techniques that make it just as easy to go for a run every day or perform a gratitude journal every night.
Lally, P., Van Jaarsveld, C.H.M., Potts, H.W.W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 998-1009. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.674
Hardy, B. P. (2018). 2 Principles That Will Help You Form Any Habit: www.thriveglobal.com