Forming Habits: The Latest Research
If you want to consistently improve yourself, you’ll often have to change your behaviors. Sometimes, it is easy. You simply decide what you want to alter, and do so. But more often than not, it is not so straight forward, even though you may know the change is for the best.
So what can you do to make permanent changes in your behavior when you’re struggling to stick to new ways of doing things? How do you go about establishing a new habit so that it becomes something you do automatically without considering alternatives?
What the Latest Research Tells Us
We’ve all heard we must repeat a behavior for around 21 days to establish a habit. You might even have applied this process and marked off the days on your calendar until you passed that last “magic” day, while you tried to cement healthier practices in your life. But, recent research disputes what we once thought was necessary to form a habit.
Researcher Phillippa Lally, and others at University College of London, determined you must do an activity for 66 days in a row before it becomes a habit! They found, if you want a behavior to become automatic, you have to repeat it daily, for 66 consecutive days.
Lally and her team, also discovered, when first forming a habit, the behavior is cue-dependent. This means, to carry out a behavior that you want to establish as a habit, you need exposure to a cue that serves to “remind” you to perform the action. Another way to describe a cue is a trigger. Triggers or cues can be either situational, (such as your environment or location) or contextual (based on something else that you do).
Situational example: When you rise in the morning and enter the bathroom, you see your toothbrush at your bathroom sink. Those objects serve as triggers or cues for you to brush your teeth.
Contextual example: Every morning before you eat breakfast, you want to remember to drink two glasses of water. Your cue for this is getting out of bed in the morning, or reaching the time of day when you’re about to eat breakfast.
Consistency is vital to establishing a habit. Although you can skip a day, the research recommends you go right back to performing the desired action. Even though the researchers admit they can’t say exactly how many times in 66 days you can skip, and still form a habit, they do stress if you’re too inconsistent, the behavior won’t become automatic.
How to Establish a Habit: A Quick List
Clarify what habit you want to establish. For example, “I want to get up at 5:00am every morning” or “I will walk 30 minutes a day.”
Commit to repeating the behavior every day for 66 days. If you already know you’re going to be traveling extensive for several weeks and will have a disrupted schedule, you know you are not going to be to get up at 5am, or walk every day, now might not be a good time to work on forming a habit.
Consider what will be your trigger or cue. Will you see some object at home, or will there be a time of day when you do something already? Just trusting yourself to remember to do the new behavior during your busy day may not be effective. Triggers are potent reminders to help you, as you work on bettering yourself.
Think about the location. The location where you perform the behavior matters. Will you be at home when you do the new activity? At the office? If you can stick with the same location, at least until the habit forms, you’re more likely to be successful.
Be consistent. Do not skip the behavior during the time you're establishing the habit.
Take note of when the activity becomes automatic. You’ll know a habit is formed when you’ve reached the point where your day seems lacking if you don’t perform the behavior. Success, at last!
No more guesswork! Just 66 days of dedication and reminders, and you’ll be well on your way to a better you.