When you think of habits, what comes to mind? It may be your daily cup of coffee or the 30-minute jog you ensure you get every evening. But have you ever stopped to ponder: how long does it take to form or break these habits?
Habit Formation: The Underlying Psychology
Habit Formation Process: Every behaviour we often repeat, from biting our nails to practising a musical instrument, undergoes a neural process. The brain looks for ways to save effort, and when behaviour becomes automatic, the decision-making part of your brain works less, which leads to habit formation.
Modelling Habit Formation: Visualise a dense forest where you’re trying to pave a new path. The first time is the hardest, but the path becomes clearer and easier with each repeated journey. That’s how habits are modelled in our brain – repetition strengthens the neural pathway.
Habits Formed: Over time, these actions move from conscious thought to being triggered automatically by contextual cues. The more we repeat, the stronger and more dominant the habit becomes.
Understanding the Good and the Bad
New Habit vs. Bad Habit: Interestingly, the brain doesn’t differentiate between good and bad habits. So, forming a new habit of drinking water can be as challenging as breaking a bad habit of excessive drinking.
Positive Habits: Engaging in behaviours beneficial for our well-being, like a healthy diet or regular exercise, might require more conscious thought initially. Still, with perseverance, they can become integral parts of our daily life.
Old Habits vs. Good Habits: Bad habits often offer instant gratification, making them harder to break. On the contrary, good habits typically promise long-term benefits, which require patience and persistence.
The Role of Mental Health in Habit Formation
Mental Resources: Mental stamina plays a pivotal role in habit formation. If you’re stressed or sleep-deprived, your brain will find it harder to create new neural pathways needed for new habits.
Old Mental Image vs. New Behaviour: Often, we have an old mental image of ourselves. Breaking that image and adopting a new behaviour, such as weight loss, demands physical and psychological efforts.
Mental Image: A positive mental image can act as a powerful tool. Visualising the benefits of a new habit or the disadvantages of an old one can accelerate the habit-forming process.
The Research Behind Habit Formation
Habit Formation Duration: A notable study by researchers at the University College London examined how long participants could form a habit, such as eating fruit daily or running for 15 minutes every day. They found that, on average, it took 66 days for a behaviour to become automatic. However, there was a wide variation among individuals – while some took as few as 18 days, others required up to 254 days.
Reference: Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., Potts, H. W. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998-1009.
Habit Formation Mechanism: Research from Duke University has shown that up to 40% of our daily actions are not conscious decisions but habits. This work emphasises the brain’s efficiency, which seeks to convert routine behaviours into habits, thereby conserving mental effort.
Reference: Neal, D. T., Wood, W., & Quinn, J. M. (2006). Habits—A repeat performance. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(4), 198-202.
The Role of Cues: Another significant study in the realm of habit formation explores how habits are strongly linked to familiar cues or triggers. This means that habits aren’t just formed through repetition but also through consistent cues like location or time of day.
Reference: Wood, W., & Neal, D. T. (2007). A new look at habits and the habit–goal interface. Psychological Review, 114(4), 843.
Habit and Self-control: An interesting research angle is the link between habit formation and self-control. Studies indicate that as behaviours become more habitual, they become less connected with goals and more automatic, which can sometimes reduce the need for self-control.
Reference: Neal, D. T., Wood, W., Labrecque, J. S., & Lally, P. (2012). How do habits guide behaviour? Perceived and actual triggers of habits in daily life. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(2), 492-498.
Breaking Habits: Breaking habits is as significant a field of study as forming them. Research emphasises that one effective way to break a habit is to disrupt the context or environment in which it typically occurs, underlining the importance of cues in habit performance.
Reference: Neal, D. T., Wood, W., Wu, M., & Kurlander, D. (2011). The pull of the past: When do habits persist despite conflict with motives? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(11), 1428-1437.
Practical Steps in Habit Forming
Form a Habit to Forming Habits: Start small. If you want to incorporate exercise into your daily routine, begin with a 5-minute workout and then gradually increase the duration.
Form a New Habit: Consistency is the key. Even if you miss a day, don’t get discouraged. The idea is to ensure the new behaviour finds a place in your daily life.
Daily Habit in Daily Life: Integrate the habit into your daily routine. If you’re trying to read more, start by reading during breakfast or before bed.
Context is Key
Contextual Cues: The environment around us plays a significant role in triggering habits. For instance, if you always snack when watching TV, the act of turning on the TV can trigger the craving for a snack.
Same Context, Different Outcomes: Try to change the context or introduce a new, positive behaviour in the same context. To reduce TV time, replace it with reading in the same spot.
General Practice: Regularly practising a behaviour in varying contexts makes it more resilient and less dependent on a single cue.
Benefits of Healthy Habits
Healthy Diet and Drinking Water: These nourish our body and brain, aiding in better decision-making and forming better habits.
Better Sleep: Adequate sleep rejuvenates the brain, making it more receptive to forming new habits and breaking old ones.
Release Dopamine: Good habits like exercise or achieving small goals release dopamine, the pleasure neurotransmitter, making us feel good and motivating us to continue.
Common Misconceptions and Challenges
Instant Gratification vs. Long-Term Benefit: Breaking habits that offer immediate pleasure requires understanding the long-term benefits of the change.
It Doesn’t Happen Overnight: It’s essential to remain patient and understand that setbacks are part of the process.
Stay Motivated: Remember why you started and visualise the end goal.
Tools and Tips for Successful Habit Formation
Psycho Cybernetics: This self-help book by Maxwell Maltz dives deep into the idea of self-image and its role in habit formation.
Develop Strategies for Daily Routine: Ensure your environment supports your new habit. If you want to eat healthily, stock up on healthy foods.
Tips for Success: Stay accountable with a partner or a journal, and celebrate small wins.
Hypnotherapy and Habit Formation
Hypnotherapy is a therapeutic technique that uses guided relaxation, intense concentration, and focused attention to achieve a heightened state of awareness known as a trance. While in this trance state, the individual becomes more receptive to suggestions and can tap into the subconscious mind. This state can be particularly effective for habit formation or modification for the following reasons:
Bypassing the Conscious Mind: One of the main tenets of hypnotherapy is its ability to bypass the conscious mind to access and influence the subconscious. Our habits, especially long-standing ones, reside deeply in our subconscious. By accessing this part of the mind, hypnotherapy can work to replace or modify unwanted behaviours and instil new, more positive ones.
Enhancing Motivation: Often, the challenge with forming a new habit isn’t just about repetition but also motivation. Hypnotherapy can reinforce the reasons and motivations behind wanting to adopt a new behaviour, making the individual more committed to the change.
Breaking Negative Associations: Some habits are maintained because they are associated with certain benefits or rewards in the subconscious mind, even if they’re detrimental in reality. For instance, someone might associate smoking with stress relief. Hypnotherapy can help break these associations and replace them with healthier alternatives.
Visualisation: During a hypnotherapy session, individuals can be guided to visualise themselves successfully adopting and maintaining their new habits. This positive visualisation can reinforce the desired behaviour, making it more likely to stick.
Reducing Stress and Anxiety: Stress and anxiety are common barriers to habit formation. If someone is continually stressed, they may revert to old, comforting habits instead of adopting new ones. Hypnotherapy is known for its relaxation benefits, which can create a conducive environment for habit formation.
Positive Reinforcement: Hypnotherapists can use post-hypnotic suggestions to reinforce adopting new habits. For instance, a person trying to cultivate the habit of regular exercise might receive a post-hypnotic suggestion that they’ll feel energised and happy whenever they think of exercising.
Research and Effectiveness: While many individuals report positive outcomes after using hypnotherapy for habit modification, scientific research on its efficacy is mixed. However, it’s widely accepted that hypnotherapy can be an effective complementary therapy when combined with other therapeutic methods.
Reference: Lynn, S. J., Kirsch, I., & Hallquist, M. N. (2008). Social cognitive theories of hypnosis. In J. A. Nash & A. J. Barnier (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of hypnosis: Theory, research, and practice (pp. 111-140). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
While the journey of habit formation is personal and varied, understanding its science and the strategies to navigate challenges can significantly improve our chances of success. Whether it’s forming good habits or breaking detrimental ones, the journey is worth the reward.