In a recent blog, I covered the life-changing power of habits, laying the foundation for the science and psychology that go into setting each of our ingrained patterns.
Remember that about 40 percent of what we do day in and day out is habitual. Essentially, our brains run on autopilot in order to conserve energy and space.
“Habits play an important role in our health,” says Dr. Nora Volkow, director of NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Understanding the biology of how we develop routines that may be harmful to us, and how to break those routines and embrace new ones, could help us change our lifestyles and adopt healthier behaviors.”
Today, I wanted to dig deeper with specific, actionable advice for anyone who is seeking to break unhealthy habits and/or set positive new ones.
But instead of just giving you a general list of tips and techniques (that you can find anywhere), I wanted to expose the five keys to habit formation that are too often forgotten in the general discussion.
Understanding these specific keys can unlock what you need to finally break those bad habits, move on to beneficial new ones, and change your life in amazing ways.
How long will it really take to make or break a habit?
One important point I’d like to make, first – it’s often reported that it takes 30 days to form a new habit, but this is incorrect. In fact, there is a wide range of time it may take to set and reinforce a new positive habit. Experts say that can be as little as 18 days all the way up to 250 days.
According to research, the average is 66 days to change a habit. That’s important to remember as we often set out with a blaze of motivation (such as when we set new year’s resolutions), but that’s barely a smolder if we don’t see results in a few weeks or a month.
So, now you understand that it will probably take around two months or more for that new habit to take hold!
The five keys to habit formation:
- To break an old habit, start a new one!
Many of us want to break bad habits. We also want to set new ones. But those things may be more interrelated than you first think.
In fact, research shows that one of the key techniques to effectively breaking a bad habit is replacing it with a positive new one.
If you want to quit smoking, it’s not enough to focus on the actual cessation of that behavior but strike it from your routine by adding a replacement behavior that is healthier.
So, quitting smoking becomes chewing gum, or having a baggie of carrot sticks with you all day, or taking a brisk walk for 15 minutes whenever you normally have your smoke break.
Scientists and researchers point out that that tactic may not work for everybody and in every situation. But for most, it will greatly improve your chances of finally splitting from those habits that keep setting you back.
- Understand your triggers.
It will also help you immensely if you can identify the triggers that lead to unwanted habitual behaviors.
Whenever you want to engage in a bad habit, take a moment to analyze your feelings, stressors, and the circumstances around you.
For instance, boredom and stress are two of the most common triggers for bad habits, according to research. Of course, stress is a broad category, which can include lack of sleep, time pressure, relationship stress, financial worries, etc.
But when you can figure out what situations, emotions, memories, or even people are triggering your maligned behaviors, you are closer to the root cause. That means terminating the bad habit (and replacing it with a good one) will be much easier.
- Reframe your bad habits.
One of the keys to terminating bad routines is to focus on the habit’s outcome. Carefully take stock of the outcome of those specific habits and behaviors. Then, consciously reframe your bad habits with new, negative outcomes attached.
For example, eating that whole container of ice cream on the couch may taste great and provide very momentary comfort (dopamine swirl ice cream?), but when reframed, the new perceived outcome is weight gain and health problems.
Reframing those bad habits to accurately assess the outcome will help dissuade you from those behaviors with a little practice.
- Understand the physiological difference between good habits and bad habits.
Forming new habits and breaking bad habits may be intertwined (as I documented earlier), but they are also two very different psychological processes.
The general mechanics of how we build both good and bad habits is pretty much the same. But pleasure-based habits are much harder to break thanks to the trigger of dopamine in the brain. As we now know, dopamine is insatiable and only creates more cravings to repeat the behavior that created the original dopamine rush.
So, habits that induce dopamine (typically short-lived pleasure-based habits) become entrenched faster, only strengthening that habit. Once you take away those behaviors, you’re left facing an acute dopamine craving, regardless that the habit is unhealthy or unbeneficial.
- You can exercise and build your “discipline muscles.”
If you’re looking to finally break a bad habit that’s been elusive in the past, there’s very good news for you. Just like you can build up your muscles at the gym, you can build and strengthen the motivational desire – or “discipline muscles” – needed to break a bad habit or start a new one.
Since self-control and discipline are like muscles, starting small and sticking with it can pay huge dividends when it’s time to tackle larger habit formation or cessation.
For instance, once you’ve successfully stopped oversleeping and hitting snooze ten times each morning, instead waking up 20 minutes earlier, the psychological process of exerting discipline and creating new, positive habits is ready for bigger and better things, like maybe quitting smoking or stopping checking your smartphone all the time.
Even the seemingly small practices of self-control can help build a foundation of discipline that your mind will be able to access once it’s time to take on the important stuff.
I think you’ll find a ton of value in understanding these five keys the next time you’re ready to change your habits.
But I can’t take credit for this little-covered but transcendental advice!
If you’re looking to research the subject of habit formation more, I recommend you read the following books:
• James Clear, Atomic Habits
• Gretchen Rubin, Better Than Before
• Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit
• Wendy Wood, Good Habits, Bad Habits
• Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit
• BJ Fogg, Tiny Habits
And there are many more, so please reach out if you’ve read a great book or found a helpful source for setting new habits and changing your life!