The Art of Habit Forming

Özge Üstündağ

Sure, you have heard the saying "old habits die hard" a million times.

Quickly think about a habit you want to break for a hot second. How do you feel about a life without that habit?

Are you feeling nervous yet?

As human beings with brains wired to waste as little energy as possible, habits enable us to meet our needs faster. If we did not know how to form habits, we would be in serious trouble. Habits help us to go on autopilot when we need to. Just think about having to consciously motivate yourself to wash your hands every time you used the bathroom. What a waste of precious brain power!

What is a habit?

A habit is a behavior we consistently perform in certain contexts. There are three key elements to understanding what habits are and how they develop: contextual cue, action, and reward.

If you always brush your teeth before you go to sleep, your contextual cue might be putting on your pajamas which you have associated with brushing your teeth (the action). The reward, in turn, might be the minty fresh scent in your mouth.

Through the cue-action-reward mechanism, you keep repeating the behavior, thus strengthening your habit.

Once a habit is formed, it becomes second nature. We automatically engage in it whenever the right cue is picked up by the brain. In other words, we no longer need to give the action conscious attention.

A study published by Psychologist Phillippa Lally (University College London) and colleagues in Psychology, Health & Medicine in 2011 reported that once habit formation occurs, reliance on conscious attention motivation decreases.

Since we do not have to rely on conscious attention to engage in habitual behaviors, it is hard to let go of them. However, you can learn to form new habits that not only make life a little bit simpler but also healthier.

4 steps to a new habit

Psychologist Benjamin Gardner (King’s College London) and colleague published an article about the art of forming new habits in 2012. Following their scientifically backed up tips and tricks, you can begin to develop a new healthy habit.

1) Decide on a goal – What is your current health goal? This could be eating more fruits or getting physically active.

2) Choose an action – Which action will help you move towards your goal? This could be eating a piece of fruit.

3) Choose a time and place – When will you do it? A fruit an hour after breakfast every day at work.

4) Repeat. Do the action every day at the time and place you have chosen.

How long will this take?

It depends. Start by very low expectations and reward yourself for your accomplishments. In about 2-3 months you might find that you do not even need the reward to do the activity anymore. If you can honestly do the activity without really thinking about it, then you have made a new habit!

Psychologist Phillippa Lally said in an interview that “It can take much longer than many people think to form a habit and it is important to persevere. If someone wants to form a habit they should specify clearly what they will do and in what situation and try to do this consistently.”


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