“What you repeatedly do (i.e. what you spend time thinking about and doing each day) ultimately forms the person you are, the things you believe and the personality that you portray.”— James Clear, author of the New York Times bestselling book Atomic Habits.
Our habits define us, but what exactly are habits?
A habit is formed when we perform a certain behavior repeatedly over time because it rewards us in some way. This continual repetition literally etches neural pathways in our brains, so that eventually we respond to a given trigger automatically and mostly unconsciously with that behavior. For example, triggered by a feeling of thirst, we seek out water or some other beverage to drink. Triggered by entering a dark room, we switch on a light so we can see.
Habits can be very useful, but since most habits are formed unconsciously, some “bad habits” are apt to develop. Bad habits provide an immediate reward (i.e. smoking a cigarette may relieve stress), but are detrimental long-time. Meanwhile, many “good habits,” like regular exercise, don’t often develop spontaneously.
So how do we etch new neural pathways?
As described last week, experts in the field of habit-changing suggest analyzing “habit loops” (trigger—behavior—reward sequences) to see how you can manipulate each element to either replace a bad habit (usually by inserting an alternate behavior leading to the same or at least an equally compelling reward) or initiate a new habit (often by clarifying a trigger and a reward for the desired new behavior).
Here are 3 more tips for changing habits successfully.
Tip #1: Don’t underestimate the power of old habits. Old habits have tremendous power; they’re comfort food for the psyche. Christine Li, Ph.D., points out that old habits are familiar, even comforting; perceived as safe; require little time, thought, or effort; and are tied up with our beliefs about who we are. By contrast, it takes effort, consciousness, and feeling a bit uncomfortable and “unlike ourselves” to replace an old habit or develop a new one.
It also takes time and consistency. Consistency means maintaining the effort every day, day in and day out, no matter what else is going on in your life or how you may be feeling, until the habit becomes automatic. While relapsing into an old habit or skipping a new one once in a while usually isn’t a disaster in the context of an overall consistent effort, it’s all too easy to start sliding down a slippery slope towards kissing your new habit goodbye.
How long does it take before a habit becomes established (automatic, requiring little effort or thought)? In contrast to a popular myth that it takes 21 days, a 2009 study found that the time required is quite different for different habits and depends on other factors as well. But for the habits these researchers looked at, it took anywhere from 18 to 254 days, and an average of 66 days.
Tip #2: Start Small. In a burst of enthusiasm, it’s easy and exciting to imagine changing all your bad habits at once and transforming your life. But because it’s hard to do the actual work of changing habits, it’s best to focus on one habit at a time, and to refrain from working on another until the first habit has become firmly established. Make a list of all the habits you’d like to change, and then start with the one that’s going to have the greatest impact on your life.
Then break that habit down into small steps. Leo Babauta suggests you make the initial step “so easy you can’t say no.” You want a goal you can commit yourself to doing without fail NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS—injuries, illness, emergencies, stress, pain, fatigue, boredom, lack of motivation, whatever.
If your goal is meditating for half an hour each day, and you find you can’t manage to do it consistently, Babauta recommends starting with as little as 2 minutes a day. Consistency is far more important than achieving benefits in the beginning. If your goal is to floss your teeth daily, he suggests starting with as little as one tooth a day! But absolutely commit yourself to doing it every day for 2 weeks, reward yourself every time you do it, and reward yourself again for reaching the two-week mark without missing a day. You can then begin to add more time or teeth to your new habit in small and doable increments until you reach your ultimate habit goal.
Tip #3: Begin Seeing Yourself Differently. According to James Clear, our current habits are a reflection of our identity—the kind of person we believe we are. To change habits permanently, we need to start changing our beliefs about ourselves. Clear gives two steps for changing these beliefs:
- Decide on the person you want to be.
- Prove you are that person with small wins.
Instead of focusing on outcomes (“I want to lose 20 pounds”) Clear suggests thinking about the kind of person you want to be. For example, “the type of person who moves more every day.” Then decide on small wins that will begin to convince you that you are indeed such a person. Clear suggests, as an example, buying a pedometer and walking 50 steps the first day, 100 steps the next day, and 150 steps the next, and each day thereafter adding 50 more steps until, by the end of a year, you reach 10,000 steps a day.
Look for more tips on changing habits successfully next week.
- Clear J. How to start new habits that actually stick. jamesclear.com. Accessed April 21, 2022.
- The Learning Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Changing Habits. Learning Center, 2022. Accessed April 21, 2022.
- Li C. How to change habits: 4 ways to make new behaviors stick. Attitude. January 21, 2022.
- Lally P. How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology. July 2009; 40:998–1009.
- Babauta L. The four habits that form habits. Zen Habits. Accessed April 21, 2022.
- Clear J. Identity-based habits: how to actually stick to your goals this year. jamesclear.com. Accessed April 21, 2022.