The power of habits
Scientists define habits as behaviours that are performed automatically because they have been performed frequently in the past. Habits don’t rely on conscious attention or motivation - they are a consequence of our brains attempt at saving mental energy exerted in decision making, as habits free up mental resources for other tasks. Learning to drive requires conscious attention initially, but eventually becomes a learned, automatic habit, freeing up attention for scanning the road, and listening to the radio.
It’s thanks to habits we’ve formed that we automatically brush our teeth every morning and evening, (hopefully) automatically put on our seatbelt when we get into a car, and tend to forget our New Years Resolutions by February. In fact, over 40% of our actions each day are the result of habits, not decisions.
Since habits dictate such a large portion of our lives, how can we ditch our negative habits, and replace them with better ones? Charles Duhigg’s ‘The Power of Habit’ argues that understanding how habits develop is the key to changing them. Duhigg explains that every habit starts with a psychological pattern called a ‘habit loop’, which constitutes a three-step process. First, there’s a cue, or trigger, that sends signals to our brain to go into automatic mode and let a behaviour unfold. Next, there’s the routine, which is the behaviour itself. And finally, there’s the reward – something that our brain responds to positively that helps it remember the ‘habit loop’ in the future. In order to break a habit, we must disrupt the habit loop by removing the cues and rewards: without the cue, our brains aren’t sent into autopilot, and when the reward is removed, there’s no longer an incentive for the bad habit, and it becomes much easier to resist. Duhigg says one of the proven most successful ways to break a negative habit is to do so whilst on holiday, because in a new environment abroad, most of our usual cues and rewards that reinforce habits aren’t around. So ditching a smoking habit might be most successful whilst on holiday.
Equally, habit formation - repeating an action consistently in the same context – can lead to long-term behaviour change, and with a dose of initial discipline, we can create new habits that require little effort to maintain. The notion that it takes 21 days to break or form a habit is a common misconception that has been around since the 1960s. A renowned study by UCL researchers found that on average, it actually takes 66 days to establish a new habit. And the more uncomfortable the habit, the longer it takes to form – running for 30 minutes each day would take longer than, say, using mouthwash everyday.
Ultimately, replacing destructive habits with healthy ones is tough. Our brains are hardwired to take shortcuts and do what comes most naturally to us, and we face drawbacks in the form of excuses, loss of motivation and overly vague goals. The UCL researchers suggest creating specific and reasonable goals for change, and that in order to establish a new habit, you should perform the behaviour in the same situation, context or time everyday, as habits thrive on consistency. And luckily, habit forming doesn’t require perfection: during the formation of a new habit, skipping a day does not have a significant impact on the habit-forming process.
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By Effie Webb
University of Oxford
First Published on 17th June 2020