All About Breaking Habits and Making New Ones

Do you have some less-than preferable habits that you want to kick? Well, you’re in good company! Most of us have at least one bad habit we’ve picked up that we’d like to show the door and replace with a better one.

But as with most things in life, it’s much easier said than done. That’s why we’re going to give you the science and tricks you need to get the ball rolling to change your ways and fix your habits!

The myths and legends of breaking habits

There are some pretty impressive claims out there about habit changing that are still widely believed.

Let’s start with the biggest one (you’ve probably seen it all over social media for years!): 

“It takes 21 days to make or break a habit.”

Ah, wouldn’t that be lovely? Unfortunately, it’s untrue, but it does come from an interesting source.

In 19060, Dr Maxwell Maltz wrote a book called Psycho-Cybernetics. In this self-help book, he explained how he’d noticed that his amputee patients took around 21 days to get used to the loss of a limb and change in their appearance. He, therefore, theorised that it must take at least 21 days to adapt to changes, including the making and breaking of habits.

However, due to a chain of poor storytellers in the self-help sphere, the line became “it takes 21 days to make or break a habit“

Over time, a second timeframe became accepted too:

“It takes 28 days to make or break a habit.”

This time, instead of being a misinterpreted timeframe from previous research, it was a pretty number chosen by “self-help gurus” looking for a gimmick to sell people a dream.

So, why are we so quick to believe these timeframes?

21 days and 28 days … three weeks and four weeks respectively. Those are some pretty neat time markers, huh. Imagine, breaking a bad habit in just three weeks. It sounds like a dream come true! 

And when something sounds as good as that, we tend to believe it because we want it to be true. And that’s why this perfectly packaged timeframe has been perpetuated time and time again. 

The truth is a little less fun…

28 Days Habits

The connection between breaking and making habits that no one talks about

We often look at making and breaking habits as absolutes. We have to completely eradicate habits cold turkey, and we have to create completely new habits from scratch.

But neither of these ideas are true, and they are actually the hardest way to approach changing your habits.

The truth is, the best way to approach habit breaking is to focus on habit changing. It’s too difficult to break habits on their own because the cues that trigger the bad habit aren’t going anywhere.

An excellent example of this is the smoking ban in public places introduced in the UK in July 2007. A lot of smokers would associate going to the pub with having a cigarette. So you’d think that a smoking ban would act as a catalyst to get people to stop smoking, right? But actually, the act of going to the pub acted as a cue to trigger the smoking routine, causing them to crave smoking and go outside.

So, if you continued going to the pub after the ban, it would be extremely difficult to break the smoking habit.

Instead, the best way to break a bad habit isn’t to break it at all, but instead to change it. And to do this we need to take a look at the commonly accepted habit creation theory called the Habit Loop by Charles Duhigg. 

What is the habit loop and how can it help you replace old habits with new ones?

The habit loop is a 3-step system that constantly circles around to strengthen behaviours and become a habit. 

There are three components in the habit loop:

  1. Cue

The place, thing, smell, etc that triggers your habit.

  1. Routine

The behaviour or chain of behaviours that make up your habit.

  1. Reward

What your habit does for you, i.e., how it makes you feel or how it benefits you.

In action, a simple habit loop might look like this 

Cue: My armpits smell after my workout 

Routine: Get in the shower and wash 

Reward: I smell nice now!

So how does this help with changing a bad habit you have and replacing it with something better?

You change the routine.

A quick Google search tells us that many people want to stop gossiping about people behind their back in the office so let’s look at how we can change this habit.

Here’s how your current bad habit loop may look: 

Cue: My co-worker upset me and made me feel bad about myself (so now I want to tell my work bestie the dirt I heard about them earlier)

Routine: I message my co-worker to meet me in the toilets then proceed to gossip for the next 15 minutes being rude, even though I’m not like this usually

Reward: I feel better about myself (because I belittled my co-worker who made me feel bad about myself and it made me feel better than them.)

Here’s the simple change we can make to replace this toxic habit with a healthier one: 

Cue: My co-worker upset me and made me feel bad about myself (so now I want to tell my work bestie the dirt I heard about them earlier)

Routine: I message my co-worker to meet me in the toilets then proceed to gossip for the next 15 minutes being rude, even though I’m not like this usually

I take a long sip of water then remove myself from the office and take a 10-minute walk whilst listening to music to clear my head and remind myself it’s a “them problem” not a “me problem" 

Reward: I feel better about myself (because I took time to indulge in self-care and protect my energy)

See how easy that was? The cue remains the same, the reward remains the same, but the action you take in the middle is different. 

And while it will still take time for it to become automatic, it’s much easier to replace that behaviour than to try and sit there doing nothing trying to avoid the urge to gossip.

What is a realistic time frame for habit changing?

So now that we know the best way to break a habit and make a new one, how long will it take?

The truthful (if annoying) answer is that it depends on your personal situation. Factors such as how long you’ve had the habit, how different the habits are, how consistent you are etc will affect the amount of time it takes.

However, a study by Phillippa Lally found that on average, it takes people anywhere between 18-254 days to automate a habit.

But it can be longer than this, and that’s perfectly ok!

Take your time

Quick tips and tricks for habit changing success

We want you to be successful in your habit changing this time, so here are some of the best scientifically-backed tips we know to get you started:

  1. Be consistent but not a perfectionist

Consistency is key when it comes to automating a habit. But skipping the odd day or two will not harm your progress. What will harm your progress, however, is getting demotivated from missing one day and throwing in the towel altogether. Remember, success is not a linear ascent!

  1. Make it easy

Listen, our brain has enough to be getting on with without spending extra energy if it doesn’t have to. And trust us, if your new habit takes too long or requires too much set-up, your brain will rebel.

So make sure the habit is easy to do so you can get straight to it. This means prepping in advance, not creating too many steps in your habit routine, and removing obstacles.

  1. Make your habit with clear instructions

Don’t leave room for interpretation. Make sure your habit is quantifiable and you know exactly what to do to achieve it. You’re more likely to work out if you have a specific exercise and timeframe or set number planned than if you just say you want to “work out.”

And always set the bar slightly lower than you think you’re capable of and stick to that number. The most important part of getting a habit to stick is feeling like it’s so easy you could do it again. Once it becomes more automatic, you can always ramp things up, but prioritise your self-confidence first.

Get the habit change train rolling! 

Every good life change starts with a plan. So grab a notebook and pen, and take time to think about and map out the habit loops of the habits you want to change.

Then, choose just one and think about how you can realistically change the routine to change the habit.

Rinse, wash, and repeat as necessary! 

We can’t wait to hear all about your habit changing journey!

For more handy lifestyle tips and tricks, follow us on Instagram at @malpaper

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