8 Science-Backed Steps to Habit Change
Humans are creatures of habit. In fact, one study found that 43% of everyday behaviors are habitual[*]. A habit is a behavior that happens automatically, repeatedly, and usually unconsciously.
Take nail biting, a classic bad habit. Most nail biters aren’t aware of the bad behavior while it’s occurring.
Because habits shape a huge chunk of your life, it pays to have good ones. But the question is: how can you promote positive habit change?
Keep reading, because below you’ll learn eight steps to change your habits for the better.
8 Science-Backed Steps to Habit Change
Before changing a long term habit, you need to set a short term objective. You need to have a goal.
The structure of this goal is simple. The goal is either to:
- Start a good habit (Exercise every morning)
- Stop a bad habit (No more late night snacks)
Habits start as goals, but to be clear: Habitual activity is distinct from goal-directed activity. A quick example from the published literature will help illustrate.
Picture two groups of rats: one habitually overtrained to push a lever for sugar, the other just starting to push the lever[*]. A habit group, and a goal-directed group.
The habit rats keep pushing that lever—in exactly the same way—even when the reward is changed. But not the goal-directed rats. Altering the sugar reward alters their behavior.
Unlike goal-oriented behavior, habitual behavior is automatic. But that doesn’t mean habit loops can’t be changed.
Turning a goal into a habit takes planning, time, and repetition. More on this soon.
Tackle your habits one at a time. Avoid, if possible, starting a new exercise program, new diet, new flossing regimen, and new meditation practice in the same calendar week.
If you try to change multiple habits simultaneously, you’ll end up overwhelmed and nothing will change. There’s a reason for this.
Each time you shift from one activity to another (like switching from goal to goal), you lose some performance velocity. This phenomenon, called task switching, is why humans are inherently bad multitaskers[*].
Instead, change your habits one by one. Over the long haul, you’ll have more success.
Putting something on paper makes it real. It’s not in your head anymore. It’s a commitment.
Be very specific about the habit you wish to stop or start. The more logistical detail you can include, the better.
For example, one study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that people who wrote down where, when, and how they would exercise were two to three times more likely to exercise than controls[*]. That’s a robust effect.
Writing down a habit-change plan also reduces the daily decisions you need to make. This reduces decision-fatigue, preserving your willpower to fuel your quest for better habits.
A habit is an automatic behavior. To install this automaticity, you need to restructure your mind through repetition.
As the saying goes, neurons that fire together, wire together. When you repeatedly perform an action, you do in fact change the neural structure of your brain[*]. That’s how habits form.
Try to practice your new desired habit at least daily, the more reps the better. Do it at the same time and in the same place to help your brain form the proper associations.
How many days are required for an action to become a daily life habit? According to one study, it could take over two months[*].
That’s right. Researchers found that the average time to install an automatic behavior—like taking a walk after breakfast— was about 66 days.
But results varied widely. Some people took only 18 days to form a habit, while others took the better part of a year.
If you miss a day of new habit practice, don’t beat yourself up. According to the data, it won’t derail the habit formation process[*].
Habitual behaviors don’t happen by accident. They’re set off by a trigger, also known as a cue.
Charles Duhigg, in his bestselling book The Power Of Habit, stresses the importance of identifying this cue[*]. If you don’t identify the cue, you can’t disrupt the bad habit and start a new routine.
Triggers are often fairly obvious. For instance, the sight or smell of cinnamon rolls can trigger hunger, which in turn leads to snacking. That’s why, when breaking bad food habits, it pays to keep offending treats sealed and out of sight.
Other triggers are more subtle. Perhaps a feeling of unease—the stress from a meeting, say—precipitates regular visits to the vending machine for a little Snickers therapy.
Uncovering these triggers can be challenging. Since habits are unconscious behaviors, you’re bound to be lost in thought when they occur.
But once you’ve pinpointed the trigger, you can work on finding other ways to satisfy it. In other words, you find a new reward.
There’s a reward embedded in every habit, good or bad. For instance, stress might trigger you to bite your nails.
The reward? Stress relief, albeit minor, through the distraction of nail biting.
To stop nail biting, swap in other behaviors (when you notice the stress trigger) to achieve the same stress reduction outcome. These behaviors might include:
- One deep breath
- Counting to ten
- Taking a quick walk
- Doing jumping jacks
- Squeezing a stress ball
Or consider another bad habit: Buying a cookie at work. “Instead of walking to the cafeteria,” writes Duhigg, “Go outside, walk around the block, and then go back to your desk without eating anything.”[*]
If you simply needed a break from work, the short walk will solve that craving. But if the trigger is hunger, you might consider another reward, like a healthy snack.
Finding the right substitute for an old habit may take some trial and error. Keep experimenting.
If you’ve ever trained a pet, you’ve probably used treats to speed the animal’s learning curve. When the treat is given in close proximity to the desired behavior, the animal learns to associate the cue (“sit”) with the treat.
Eventually the treat can be removed. The behavior has become a trained habit.
Training humans, including yourself, is not so different.
“Behavior that is already occurring, no matter how sporadically, can always be intensified with positive reinforcement,” writes behavioral psychologist Karen Pryor in her highly acclaimed book Don’t Shoot The Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training[*].
Say you want to start flossing nightly. When you pick up the floss, praise yourself out loud. Don’t underestimate the power of self-talk. Have your partner praise you too, if that’s an option.
All that positive reinforcement will lead to behavior change. Soon you’ll be a jolly flossing machine, and you won’t need the praise anymore.
Or take exercise. Maybe you only exercise once a week and want to increase the frequency.
Consider positively reinforcing the exercise with a treat (like a piece of chocolate) at the end of each session. Eventually you’ll do the exercise routine on autopilot, and the treat will no longer be needed.
Breaking bad habits requires willpower. It requires focus, concentration, and impulse control to identify the trigger, then consciously perform a different action.
Sleep deprivation can sap that willpower. This has been shown.
Researchers gave 34 people just 6 hours of sleep per night for four consecutive nights, then administered a series of behavioral tests. Compared to the long-sleep control condition (9 hours), the participants acted more impulsively when sleep deprived[*].
Short sleep has also been shown to increase ghrelin, your hunger hormone[*]. As you might imagine, this is less than ideal for changing dietary habits.
Here’s the takeaway. If good sleep is low on your list, consider moving it to the top. Prioritizing sleep will make habit change significantly easier.
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