Quitting smoking. Keeping a gratitude journal. Developing a mindfulness practice. Whether we want to break habits, or create new ones, the process can be complicated. Most of us have made resolutions to break or create habits, only to relapse in our existing behaviours.
How do we change this cycle? How do habits work? And what are the elements needed to break and create habits?
Popular believe has it, that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. However, a study from University College London has shown that it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days, depending on the complexity of the habit.
The key word to understanding habits is “automaticity”: acting without thinking. To make or break a habit using automaticity, we need “if-then” plans: “if x happens, then I’ll do y”.
Habits are formed by the “Habit Loop”.
The habit loop consists of:
- The Reminder (the trigger of the behavior).
- The Routine (the behaviour itself).
- And The Reward (the benefit of the behaviour).
To develop a good habit, do the following
- Identify the routine around the habit. Isolate the cue or reminder that triggers the behaviour.
- Create behaviour chains and choose a (new) reminder. Create two lists, things you do every day, and things that happen to you each day. These lists will show you where and how to insert a new habit, in an “if-then” plan.
- Eliminate excessive options. Identify aspects of your life that you consider not that important, and then routinise those aspects, so that you have mental energy left to work on your habits.
- Choose a habit that is easy to start. Big changes in life happen as a product of daily habits, usually not the other way around.
- Experiment with rewards. Create success and positive feedback loops when accomplishing your growing habit for that day.
- Only go after habits that are important to you.
- Make micro quotas and macro goals. Balance your desire to dream big goals with your day-to-day activities and possible quotas to get to your goals.
- When monitoring your habit, consider using tracking apps, or using a simple “yes-no-chart” that tracks how many days you have engaged in the habit.
- Make a solid plan how to break or create the habit and how to monitor it. Process plan: visualise the process instead of the outcome.
- Eliminate the “What the Hell Effect” or “ah-screw-its”. Find where things are susceptible to break down, and consider including an if-then-plan to mitigate these moments.
Studies have shown that certain habits, like making your bed, exercising, or keeping a journal, can keystone other habits. Recognize a keystone habit that works for you, and use it to develop other habits.
How to avoid falling back into old habits
To avoid falling back on our bad habits, or not succeeding in creating new ones, it is essential to recognise and counteract loopholes, like false choice loopholes, tomorrow loopholes, this-doesn’t count loopholes, fake self-actualisation loopholes, or one-time loopholes. Recognise these kinds of loopholes and counter them with if-then plans to strengthen your automaticity. Ultimately, breaking or creating habits help us in living the life we want to live.
As author Gretchen Rubin put it, habits are “the invisible architecture of every life and a significant element of happiness.”
Whether it is gratitude, mindfulness, connection, forgiveness, compassion, or any other happiness practice you seek to work on, the key is to form and sustain good habits. So, why not start with one today?