The Art of Establishing New Habits
An unfortunate thing about this world is that good habits are much easier to give up than bad ones.” Somerset Maugham
Every day you make hundreds of decisions. It’s not possible to make conscious deliberations about all of them. In most cases you simply react automatically without even being aware of it. Then you are controlled by habits, which can be described as automatic actions connected to various signals in the environment.1
In some cases these habits are completely in line with long-term goals and desires. But in many cases they are more likely counterproductive. This especially applies when habits are controlled by short-term enjoyment, such as eating sweets even though in the long term that is adverse to health.
How then can we establish new habits that are more in line with our long-term wishes?
Research about habits goes back over a century, to Ivan Pavlov who conducted famous experiments where dogs learned to salivate simply at the sound of a tuning fork, because they were used to hearing that sound when food was served.
The habits of people are naturally more complex, so let’s see if modern research can give you any tips on how to create new habits.
1. Intention to make a change
New habits are formed in four stages.2 Naturally we must first have an intention to make a change. Studies show that when the intentions are specific, realistic and – above all – formulated by ourselves (not by healthcare staff, family members or friends), it is easier to find inner motivation and persistence.3 Personal questions are an effective way to realize what truly is essential for you to prioritize.
2. Implementation plan
Many of our grand New Year’s resolutions and bold lifestyle goals often stop at good intentions. When in the heat of the moment we don’t have a clear plan for how we should act, the old habit often kicks in. Studies show that it is easier to realize intentions if we have a concrete implementation plan, where we have decided in advance how we should act in various situations.3 ”When I have brought in the morning newspaper, then I will take my daily bike ride.” ”If my thoughts feel scattered, then I will go for a walk.”
3. The new behavior must be repeated again and again
It is debatable to what degree we need rewards in order to establish new habits. New studies show that external rewards in many cases can counteract inner motivation.4 If for example the daily round of exercise is always rewarded with a tasty afternoon pastry there is a risk that the exercise round will mostly be driven by the desire to get the pastry, instead of an inner motivation to exercise. Persistence then often declines.4
On the other hand, rewards such as reduced weight or lower blood sugar can be motivating. Too much focus on quick results can however mean that we lose interest, especially because health effects are so long term. It is most effective if the intention for change feels so personally important that the new behavior in itself produces an inner sense of satisfaction.2
4. The new behavior must be consistenly linked to everyday signals
Often there are several competing habits, all of which are controlled by the same signals, such as the feeling of hunger, the aroma of a cup of coffee or a sense of stress. If the new habit is going to have any possibility of overcoming the old habits, we need to be very consistent to start with.2
One possibility is also to find completely new signals and try to link habits to them, e.g. by picking out a specific coffee cup at work or at home and linking it to eating a piece of fruit (instead of something less nutritious).
How long does it take to form new habits?
In an interesting study from London 96 individuals were allowed to freely formulate a new habit they wanted to establish, anything from eating more vegetables to starting to meditate.1 They also got to choose an everyday signal to link the action to. Assessment was made every day of how automatic the action was, as a measure of how customary it had become.
Figure: In the beginning the new action required a lot of conscious effort, but gradually the action became more and more automatic. As you can see in the figure, the effect of repeating the action was large in the beginning, and then it leveled out – the action became more and more habitual.
Fourteen participants withdrew early and of the 82 that completed, 12 never managed to establish a habit. For the remainder it took an average of 66 days to establish the new habit, but the variation was great. For some participants it only took 18 days, for others it took all of 254 days! There was also a tendency that establishing new exercise habits took longer than new eating habits, probably because new exercise habits are more complex to initiate.2
The results can be important to keep in mind when you are on these pages. It takes time to make changes, and the questions are something you take with you for a long time to help you reach our long-term intentions.
Perhaps this research can inspire you to establish new, good habits – without giving up.
What new habit do you want to start with?
Lally P et al., How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 40, 998–1009 (2010)
Lally P et al., Health Psychology Review, Vol. 7, Supplement 1, S137-S158 (2013)
Gollwitzer P. American Psychologist. Vol. 54. No. 7, 493-503 (1999)
Ryan RM el al., American Psychologist, 55, 68-78 (2000)