We hear about bad habits all the time. They range from the gross to the unhealthy to the destructive. I have a terrible habit of picking my fingernails so that they never grow to be strong and beautiful, and the more stressed I get, the worse my nails look. You can usually tell the kind of week I am having by just glancing at my hands.
Sometimes it seems we’re so focused on getting rid of the bad habits that the good habits just seem to sit on the bench, wondering if coach is ever going to let them out on the field. The cool thing is that good habits can be a great way to start replacing the bad habits, and since it’s a lot easier to create new habits rather than stop old ones, it’s a perfect first step. But let’s start at the beginning:
Where do habits come from?
Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, offers a framework for how we understand habits through the habit loop comprised of a cue-routine-reward. Here’s an example of getting popcorn at a movie theater:
Cue: Walk into the theater and the smell of buttery popcorn hits you in the face
Routine: Buy some popcorn, eat some
Reward: Popcorn tastes delicious
Have you ever felt panic because you can’t remember brushing you teeth that morning? (You did this morning, right?). It’s so routine, you weren’t paying attention doing it. You can thank your basal ganglia—a part of your brain responsible for memory and pattern recognition—for allowing you to have habits that feel automatic, like you’re on auto-pilot. This is actually helpful because it lets us focus on other things in the meantime, like breakfast.
Can you change a habit?
Dr. BJ Fogg is famous for his behavior change model that says that in order for behavior to occur, you need three things:
Therefore, if you want to stop a behavior, you could try remove one of these. For example, you could remove cookies from your house so they are no longer available at home. And if the mere sight of those cookies made you suddenly crave them, then not keeping them in the house will also help remove a trigger too.
Alternatively, you could try swapping old behaviors with new ones. A textbook example of this is for people who are quitting tobacco to use gum as something to keep their mouth busy (the original trigger/cue is the same, but the routine is different).
You can be strategic with designing new rewards and triggers for an even greater effect. Consider the concept of "temptation bundling," where you pair something you enjoy with something you "should" do. Researchers at Wharton found that when participants treated themselves to an engaging audiobook only when they were exercising, they went to the gym 51% more frequently than the control group. Not only do you get a two-for-one habit deal with this strategy, but the effect was strongest with people that had the busiest schedules.
In the spirit of multi-tasking, sometimes other things happening in your life can supply some fresh new triggers. Try to piggyback new healthy habits with big life shifts. Wendy Wood says that life events that change the context (like moving to a new city) can make it easier to change behavior because old triggers might not be there anymore. Consider it an opportunity to form new triggers for healthy behaviors.
A good habits success story
They say a cluttered room is the sign of a cluttered mind (to which my significant other asks “What does this imply about an empty room?”). Some might say I have a flair for the messy. Every time it seems I am able to do a decent job tidying up my home, it never lasts more than a week. As I relocated to a new city and apartment, I decided I wanted to do things differently and become a neat(-er) person.
My friend recommended the popular book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. Kondo explains her own good habits for staying tidy, and her philosophy that every item needs a "home." I realized that part of my challenge in the past was that many of my things didn’t really belong anywhere (e.g., purses, keys). As a result, I would lose them constantly. But once I decided where each item lived, it was easy to turn a trigger (getting home and removing my coat/shoes/bag) into a routine (return each item to its proper spot).
Here are some steps to start developing good habits:
Decide what the new good habit is—be specific. For me it was: put stuff back in its place
Identify the trigger. Is it when you walk in the front door and take your shoes off?
Mini-reward yourself each time you practice these good habits. For example, you might pause for a moment to take in the neatness of the new spot. You can give yourself a mental high-five.
True or False: It takes 21 days to start a new habit.
False. If only our brains were so predictable! According to a Science Alert article, the myth originated from a book back in 1960 where a plastic surgeon noticed that it takes 21 days for patients to get used to their new faces. One study found that habits can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days, but that on average, people could adopt a new habit in 66 days. So don't beat yourself up if it seems to be taking a while for the new positive behavior to really feel like you're on autopilot. It's normal, and you're only human.
No long how long it takes, be sure to acknowledge and celebrate your journey to healthier, happier habits.