Are you a chronic nail biter? Have a smoking habit that just won’t quit? Or perhaps your waistband feels snug after eating, drinking and making a little too merry over the holiday season? Whatever your vice you, along with countless others, likely have plans to leap into 2019 with your best foot forward.
The New Year represents a chance for a fresh start and, for many people, this means an earnest attempt at adopting good habits and bidding adieu to the bad ones. And as well-intentioned as your New Year’s resolutions might be, you may find that year after year, they just don’t stick.
Whether you want to whip yourself into shape, ditch the junk food or lose the booze, making and breaking habits is something many of us struggle with. But with a clear picture of what you want, along with time and effort, you’re well on your way to making positive changes for the long haul.
What’s a Habit?
You may have seen it defined a few different ways, but according to psychology, a habit is an action that’s triggered automatically by something in our environment (called “contextual cues”). Eventually, the action is repeated enough times in response to the cue that it becomes second nature. Think of putting on a seatbelt (action) when you get into a vehicle (contextual cue), or perhaps placing your keys into a bowl (action) when you enter your house (contextual cue) �" we don’t have to think about these things, we just do them.
So much of our everyday behaviour is habitual. In fact, according to the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP), studies show that about 40 per cent of our daily activities are performed in almost the same situations every day.
“Generally as human beings, we know that we function best whenever there is a structure, whenever there is a routine. We know that helps to drive our day-to-day activities, responsibilities, and it’s also healthy as well,” says Dr. Katy Kamkar, clinical psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.
“Now there are healthy habits that obviously we want to engage in... as well, we can come into a time in our life, or certain situations and contexts, when we find that we are engaging in what we might call unhealthy habits... Often we see habits as learned behaviours, which is great news, because anything that is learned, we can also work on undoing the learning.”
Recipe for Success
To form a good habit, cues and consistency are key. For example, say you want to get fit. In order to accomplish this goal, you might choose to go for a walk every morning (action) after you eat breakfast (contextual cue). Eventually, after consistent repetition, the act of going for a post-breakfast stroll becomes second nature.
“Choose a cue in the environment that will elicit a specific behaviour. For example, taking the stairs every day when you arrive to work, meditating for 10 minutes as soon as you arrive home at the end of the day, or writing in a journal right before bed. The more reliable the cue in the environment, the more likely it is that the habit will form,” says Eamon Colvin, a PhD student in Clinical Psychology at the University of Ottawa.
While many of us might have ambitious goals, Colvin says it’s best to start small and choose something simple and sustainable.
“Since habits are automatic, if you choose an effortful behaviour, it is less likely that a habit will form,” he says.
“For example, imagine that I want to be active each morning before I leave for work. If I decide to run a marathon and bench press 300 lbs every morning, I’ll probably be unsuccessful. If, instead, I do 10 push-ups before my morning shower, I’ll likely have more success. Over time, the push-ups will become automatic and I can add in other activities.”
In addition to keeping it simple, be specific, Colvin adds. “Saying ‘I want to start a jogging habit’ is not enough. Once again, you will need to decide on a reliable cue in the outside world that will prompt you to do it.”
He says, “Jogging could be broken down into: ‘I want to go for a run around the block each morning before work.’ This is better, but a bit more planning could improve your chances of forming the habit. You would also need to form the habit of ‘putting my running shoes by my bed’ each night, as a reminder.”
When it comes to kicking bad habits, Colvin says, developing skills in mindfulness can go a long way in helping to identify cravings and learning how to deal with them.
“Also, going ‘cold turkey’ rarely works because a growing body of research is showing that willpower is a finite resource,” he says.
“Sometimes, breaking bad habits really means forming a new, good habit. Consider someone who wants to stop eating junk food late at night. While one solution may be learning to substitute the junk food for a better option, another could be forming a new bedtime habit routine which involves going to bed early.”
Paying attention to your behaviour, especially around what stressors lead to the unhealthy habit in question, Dr. Kamkar adds, is also important.
“What are the triggers that will lead to the behaviour? What are the ABCs leading to the behaviour? Any kind of monitoring that can help build awareness: location and time, thoughts related to the habit, emotions related to the habit... can be very helpful.”
The 21-Day Myth
You may have heard it said that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. So you want to become a runner? Just beat the street for 21 days straight and then you’ll be lacing up your sneakers without having to give it a second thought. If only it were that easy!
While setting aside time to regularly practise whatever it is you
want to accomplish is a good thing, you’ll likely need more than 21 days before the desired behaviour becomes routine.
The 21-day rule can be traced back to Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon in the 1950s who noticed that it took about 21 days for a patient to adjust to their new visage, or for an amputee to adjust to the loss of a limb. Intrigued, Dr. Maltz noticed that it also took himself around 21 days to form a new behaviour. In 1960, he published his findings in a book titled Psycho-Cybernetics, and over time, the 21-day rule became
the mantra of self-help gurus everywhere. However, changing behaviour is not that cut and dried.
“It’s important to have realistic expectations. We all know that whenever we want to instill healthy changes, we need patience and time,” says Dr. Kamkar.
When it comes to the process of setting and meeting goals, everyone goes about it their own way. What might work for one person, might not necessarily work for someone else. Having flexibility is key and, Dr. Kamkar adds, placing undue pressure on ourselves with a specific timeline doesn’t help.
“If it works, great, and if it doesn’t work, then we’ve become hopeless and we lose our motivation. Or we engage in negative self talk or self blame, and we can become demoralized and then it defeats the purpose.”
So how long does it actually take to form a new habit? A study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology by Phillippa Lally (a research psychologist at University College London) and her team found that it took their subjects anywhere from 18 to 254 days (or 66 days on average).
So if your new “thing,” whatever it may be, isn’t exactly sticking after three weeks, don’t sweat it. And if you happen to miss your morning walk one day, or you have that cigarette after you’ve sworn off smoking, don’t be too hard on yourself �" just get back on the horse.
“Theoretically, choosing a cue which stands out and can be linked only to the new behaviour, and consistently performing the new action every time the cue is encountered, should be the most efficient way to form a habit,” Lally writes in an email to Downhome.
“But the odd slip up won’t put you back to square one, and it’s important not to give up.”
- by Linda Browne