One of the biggest problems encountered by anyone trying to start a new habit, is keeping momentum. In this article, I’ll take you through how habits work, and techniques to achieve them.
So, What is a habit then?
When people mention the word habit, they generally mean something they do all the time. But, in psychological terms, an action is only really a habit if you do it ‘automatically, in response to contextual cues that have been associated with their performance’. Yeah, I know, all psycho-babble right? Fear not! I’ll explain it all in the next few paragraphs.
Although the best way to start a habit, is to consciously plan for it to happen, it isn’t a habit until you don’t have to plan for it any more. You just do it as part of your daily routine.
It’s usually the setting, or situation where you performed the action in the past, that triggers you to do it again.
eg. When you get into your car, you ‘automatically’ put on your seat belt. Putting on the seat belt is the automatic habit, that happens when then contextual cue, getting in the car, takes place. If you had to remind yourself to put it on, it wouldn’t be a habit.
How long does it take to form a new habit?
You’ve probably heard that it it takes 21 days to form a new habit?
Even though, in some cases that’s true, it’s more likely to take considerably longer.
The 21 days, probably comes from the Plastic Surgeon Maxwell Maltz. He said that amputees took on average, 21 days to adjust to the loss of a limb. Using a system like the children’s game ‘Chinese Whispers‘, this has probably become, it must take 21 days to make any big change.
According to research by Phillippa Lally Ph.D and colleagues from the Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Centre (based at UCL Epidemiology and Public Health.), the average time it takes for a habit to form is 661 days.
BUT… the actual amount of time it takes, can vary wildly. According to the same research, the participants took between 18 and 254 days.
Some of the simpler habits, like drinking water with lunch won’t take very long to become habitual. A more intense habit, like going for a run everyday before dinner will likely take longer.
The research also demonstrated, it’s much easier to start small habits, then build on them, rather that trying to make a big change immediately.
What’s the best way to start a new habit then?
I believe, there are really five important steps to making your new habit ‘stick’.
1. Find your ‘why’:
The first thing to do when you’re thinking of starting any new habit, is to understand why you want to do it. If you fully understand the why, you’ll be more motivated to continue with it when the novelty starts to wear off.
You might have to ask ‘why’ several times to get the true reason, but it makes so much difference when you have it!
eg. Q: Why do I want to go to the Gym? A: To lose weight.
Q: Why do I want to lose weight? A: I’ll look better.
Q: Why do I want to look better? A: So that I’m more attractive to women.
2. Start small:
Smaller habits are much easier to stick to than bigger, more difficult ones. I know that’s common sense, but you’d be amazed at how many people try to set habits like “I will run for 30 minutes every day” etc. even when they’ve never exercised before!
Start small…. ” I will run for 5 minutes four times a week”
3. Get Attached:
Try to associate your new habit with a current activity. If you want to read more, for example, pack a book with your lunch. When you’re eating lunch, it’s easy to start to read, even if it’s only for 15 minutes.
4. Build it up:
Once the habit has started to become easy, add to it. Using the running example above, maybe after two weeks, begin running for 15 minutes four times a week, or 5 minutes every day, etc.
5. Be Consistent:
If at-all possible, carry out your new habit every day. Even if it means doing it badly. If your habit was to read for 15 minutes every day and one day you can’t find the 15 minutes, read for 5 minutes, or even 2 minutes.
It’s not going to end the World if you have to miss doing your action for a day. Just don’t miss two!
The problem is your old style of living is easy to get back to. Your mind is always trying to be super-efficient. If you give your old habits a chance to take over again, they will…. because it’s easy, so at the moment, it’s a more efficient use of energy.
If you do miss a day, your mind will forgive you. Any longer than that and you’ve lost some of your your momentum. Your mind then learns it can put a few small barriers in the way and you’ll go back to how things were.
So, there we go. 5 simple steps to help your new habits stick!
Once your new habit is automatic, why not add another one? Now you know the process, the only limit is your imagination. 🙂
Try it, and let me know how you get on in the comments. Of course, you’re welcome to add any insights you have to the comments as well. Everyone’s friendly here 😉