When we feel stuck in life, the first thing we look to change is our habits. I want to eat healthier, exercise more, make new friends, find a new job. All these things require changing the fundamental ways in which we behave on a daily basis.
Except wanting to form a new habit and actually doing so are two very different beasts. And with the extremely damaging idea that it only takes 21 days to form a habit still floating around the internet, it’s no wonder so many of us give up before we reach our goals!
Well, fear not. We’re here to give you the lowdown on just how habits are formed and how you can use this information to make the changes you are desperate to make in your own life.
Together, we’ll get you started on your journey to successfully form a new habit!
How habits shape our lives
Habits are essentially a group of small automated actions repeated regularly. They can be good, bad, or indifferent. But they serve an essential evolutionary purpose.
Have you ever heard the statistic that humans only use 10% of their brain? It’s not a lot. And if we had to be hyper-aware of every single one of our actions, we’d be burnt out after the first two minutes of every day!
And you already have many habits that you didn’t even realise are: going to the toilet, walking, travelling to work/ other frequent destinations. You do them all on autopilot because they are so ingrained in your mind that you don’t have to think twice. It’s the reason you can leave your house in the morning and suddenly find yourself at work wondering how on earth you got there!
And thanks to this automated function of habits, it leaves your brain with the capacity to learn new things and interact with the world. Plus, it just makes life easier!
The two main types of habit formation
When thinking about how habits are formed, there are two main processes that you can apply, each with its own sets of pros and cons.
Build a new habit from scratch
This is the most popular method of forming a habit. Essentially it does what it says on the tin – you build a new habit from the very beginning. That means deciding what you want that habit to look like, when you are going to practice it, how often etc.
The great thing about building a new habit from scratch is that it feels like a completely fresh start. And that sense of excitement at the prospect of changing your life will carry some momentum at the beginning of your journey.
Not only that, but in building a habit from scratch, you’ll find yourself able to adapt your habit to different situations as life gets busy.
However, this type of habit building takes a long time and requires a lot of intentional behaviour to begin with. And that can be tiring and demotivating when you want to change your life now.
Unlike building your habit from scratch where you choose your schedule, habit stacking involves attaching new habits to your old ones.
For example, imagine you want to start meditating every morning. A habit you almost certainly already have is getting out of bed and going to the toilet, brushing your teeth, or making your bed. To habit stack meditation, you would decide that every day after toilet/teeth/bed, you will meditate for a minute.
Because you already do those things, you’re just adding an extra step to your already automated process, making it easier for your brain to adapt to the new behaviour.
Habit stacking works well because your already established habits act as a prompt to do the behaviours you want to turn into a new habit. We know that forming a habit requires intentional thought and action; this just makes that job more manageable.
The downside to habit stacking is that if your normal habits get disrupted, you could very well find interruption with that habit too. You may also find it challenging to make that habit separate from the initial one used to build it, which could be a problem if you want flexibility with your schedule.
How long does it take to build a new habit?
This is a tricky one to answer because whenever people see a certain timeframe, they expect themselves to achieve said timeframe and beat themselves up if they don’t achieve it.
Experts say it can take three to six months to fully build an automated and ingrained habit into your daily routine.
However, it could take you longer or less time depending on how different the habit is from your life right now and how flexible your brain is to change.
So the main takeaway here is don’t worry about forming a habit within a certain timeframe as you’ll become demotivated and be more likely to give up. Instead, focus on the actions that will get you there and work on being present for them until they become automatic.
How to build your own habits
Now that we know how to form habits and how long they take, how can you implement this information into your own life and start your own habit journey?
Decide your “what” and “why.”
Choosing a new habit is probably going to be the easiest thing for you. You probably already have ten in mind as you read this!
The more difficult task is narrowing down why you want to build this new habit. It’s important to pin this down now because you’re facing months of having to intentionally work towards automating this behaviour. And unfortunately, you can’t rely on motivation alone to get there. But reminding yourself why you want it will help.
It's also good to take stock and make sure you actually have a strong desire to build the habit. For example, if your “why” is “because all my friends are doing it, so I feel like I have to”, you probably won’t stick to it for long.
Make a plan
Next up, it’s time to make a plan. So, grab your journal and plot out your journey. What is the end goal? What are the behaviours that will help me form this habit?
Be as specific as possible. For example, how long are you willing to spend each day on the habit-building? How many days a week?
Once you know this, start breaking it down into building blocks that you can use to build up to your new behaviours.
We’re prone to want instant gratification these days. And when you want to build a habit, you’ll find the urge to jump in headfirst and do your end goal habit from day one.
Don’t do this.
Start with the most basic component of your habit and focus on that for a week or two and then build from there. This way, it feels much more attainable, and it’s more likely to stick in the long run. Because let's face it. If something seems too hard, you’re probably just going to give up.
To give you an idea of how small you should go to begin with, let’s look at how we brush our teeth.
What’s the first thing you do when you brush your teeth? If you said to put toothpaste on your brush, I’m afraid you score nil points. The very first thing you do is walk into your bathroom.
Using this logic, let’s say you want to start exercising more. Getting your workout clothes ready is the equivalent of walking into the bathroom. So you would start there. Perhaps also putting them on too. But no more. Remember, habit-forming is a marathon, not a sprint.
Just like a doctor’s appointment, business meeting, or birthday party, showing up for your habit is an important event. And as such, you need to incorporate it into your schedule. That way, you are less likely to forget to do it.
Throw perfection out the window
Building a habit requires consistency in your actions. Sporadic acts of behaviour won’t get you very far. That said, becoming too regimented about your habit-building is a fast-track path to burnout and quitting.
You won’t always be able to complete your habit when you scheduled it – life likes to get in the way. And sometimes, you just don’t have the energy to complete it.
So be kind and remind yourself that you can only do what you can, and on any given day, that will change.
Final thoughts on forming habits for lasting change
Habit-forming takes a long period of consistent, intentional action. But when you break it down to its smallest components and work your way up, you give yourself the best chance at making your habits stick.
What’s a habit you want to form in 2022? Let us know in the comments!