How to Form a Habit (That Actually Lasts)

Habits

Good habits, bad habits—the topic often arises around New Years, when resolutions are made and broken, then forgotten altogether. But 40 percent of our daily actions are automated, or performed in near-identical situations. With so much of our daily routine influenced by habit, shouldn’t we give our repetitive behaviors more thought?

First off, a habit is an action triggered by a contextual cue that’s associated with the behavior, such as washing your hands after using the restroom. Repetition of the behavior in an associative context leads to a person performing the action automatically. For anyone hoping to develop better work, wellness or lifestyle habits, we’ve got you covered.

1. It takes longer than you think

Remember the old theory that says it takes 21 days to develop a habit? According to a 2010 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it took study participants anywhere from 18 to 254 days to carry out an eating, drinking or activity behavior habitually, with an average time period of 66 days.

The study demonstrates that there’s considerable variation in the amount of time it takes people to develop habits, but on average, it takes longer than traditionally estimated.

2. Focus on one behavior at a time

According to Christine Whelan, a public sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, attempting to change several behaviors at once is a mistake. Give one action your complete focus—whether that’s hitting the gym for an hour after work, choosing salads over sandwiches during lunch or meditating for 10 minutes before bed.

Each behavior you choose represents time you can’t spend on other activities, so it’s easier to start with one action at a time. Not only is it less intimidating, but you’re also less likely to fail.

3. Find your habit’s ecosystem

Habits exist in the context of behavioral cues—they cannot be separated from their environment. A study published in the journal of Psychology, Health & Medicine found that participants enrolled in a weight loss program based solely on habit-formation principles found it much more challenging to stick to behaviors outside of the workweek. Weekends and vacations disrupted the normal contextual cues associated with the participants’ habits, but once the workweek resumed, participants returned to their positive behaviors.

Consider the specific timing of your desired habit. Is it something you can do right after your first cup of coffee? As soon as you turn on your computer? Picking a place and time you can stick to is key.

4. Don’t worry if you miss a day

In the previous study, participants skipped weekends and holidays yet stayed on track. While repetition is key, missing a day or two isn’t ruinous. Remember, your habit’s more dependent on associated cues than willpower alone.

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