The Science Behind Forming New Habits and How Long It Takes
Over the last 50 years, there has been a lot of misinformation on the science behind habit formation. These falsehoods have led many to believe they’re unable to form new habits, or that they lack the capability to do so.
Luckily, in the last decade, a wealth of in-depth research has been released about how we can form new habits and how long it takes.
In this article, we’re going to delve into the science of habit formation and how long you can expect to take to build a new habit.
What is a habit?
To understand how habits are created, it’s important to get clear on what a habit actually is. A habit is a set of automated behaviours that join together to create a sequence.
You have hundreds of habits already that are so second nature to you that you don’t even realise you have them. Like putting shoes on before you leave the house, using cutlery to eat food, the order in which you put your clothes on (pants first or socks?), and the way you wipe after going to the bathroom.
But because these actions are so ingrained into our daily life, we don’t see them as habits, they just feel like the “right and normal thing to do.” Even though technically, you don’t have to go out with shoes or eat with cutlery to survive…
And so just as these habits have become second nature, it is possible to create other habits that feel like a part of normal, everyday life.
What is the habit loop?
The most commonly accepted framework for building new habits is the habit loop created by Charles Duhigg. It’s a philosophy that expands on the early work of Ivan Pavlov on classic conditioning.
You’ve probably heard of Pavlov’s dog, right? If not, quick recap:
Psychologist Pavlov wanted to see if he could train his dog to salivate just by ringing a bell. So he would ring a bell and present the dog with food. The food caused the dog to salivate. He repeated this for many weeks so the dog would learn to associate the bell sound with food. Eventually, the dog would salivate at the sound of a bell whether there was food present or not.
Here's a hilarious clip from The Office of Pavlov’s theory in action.
The habit loop works in much the same way.
It’s made of three components:
The sound, smell, thing, or location that reminds you to do a behaviour
The behaviour or chain of behaviours that represent the habit
The benefit you feel after doing it.
An example of a habit loop you probably already have is:
- Go to the bathroom
- Brush teeth
- Go back to bedroom
Reward: Clean feeling in the mouth
How does the habit loop help us understand habit formation?
To successfully implement a habit, you need to have a repeatable habit loop that caters to all three points: cue, routine and reward.
So if you’re trying to create a habit that doesn’t benefit you, or that you don’t feel good about, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to make it stick.
Routines are pretty self-explanatory – it’s the action and behaviour you want to convert into a habit.
Cues and rewards are a little more complex, though. Let’s start with rewards.
Going back to some of the habit examples we’ve mentioned so far, you can see that all of them have rewards. The reward is what makes you want to repeat them.
For example, using cutlery keeps your hands clean and makes it easier to eat messy foods like soup, and brushing your teeth rewards you with that lovely minty sensation in your mouth that makes you feel clean.
Rewards don’t always have to add something to your life, either. It may be that the reward is avoiding a negative consequence. For example, wearing shoes outside protects your feet from pain.
So if you don’t find your routine rewarding or life-improving, why would you repeat it enough to make it a habit?
The science of habit stacking
Let’s focus on cues now. Because you need to be active about behaviour that isn’t a habit, it’s vital you have reminders to get you doing it. These are your cues.
Most people rely on physical cues to remind them to do certain behaviours. For example, leaving your gym clothes ready at your desk so you remember to exercise before work, leaving post-it notes to remind you to do things, or setting an alarm on your phone to remind you to do your chores.
And while there is nothing wrong with these cues, they require effort to set up. And if there is one takeaway you need to remember about building habits, it’s that you need to make it as straightforward as possible.
Which leads us to an alternative habit cue called habit stacking.
Habit stacking is using habits you already have to instigate new ones.
For example, let’s say your lunchtime starts at 1 pm. You already have the habit of leaving your desk at 1 pm to leave and eat. But if you wanted to add exercise into your routine, you can use the cue you already have of 1 pm lunchtime to add an extra step – a workout. So you might decide: “when I stand up from my desk at 1 pm, I will go on a 20-minute walk.”
We already habit stack without realising. For example, when we’re tired and are going to bed (cue) we brush our teeth, change into pyjamas, turn off electronics, and get into bed (routine). As a result, we feel relaxed and ready for sleep (reward).
As you already have a habit in place and are just adding to it, it takes significantly less time to incorporate this new habit than starting from scratch.
How long does it take to build a habit?
This is the golden question everyone asks when trying to build a new habit. Unfortunately, contrary to the attractive Pinterest posts, and antiquated research, it doesn’t take 21 days to make a new habit stick (it sucks I know, sorry!).
The most prominent study on habit formation duration is by Phillippa Lally. Her study concluded that for the participants in her experiment it took anywhere between 18 to 254 days for a habit to become automated.
The length of time it takes to make a habit stick depends on many different variables, including:
- How consistent you are with repeating your habits
- How different the habit is from your usual behaviours
- How accessible and easy it is for you to do
- How strong the cue is
- How beneficial the reward is
- How complicated the routine (behaviour) is
Five scientifically-backed tips to create a new habit
To help you start your habit formation journey, here are five scientifically-backed tips to consider.
- Always opt for habit stacking where possible
You already have significant habits and cues in place for other behaviours you do. If you want the best chance for successful automation, adding new habits to old ones is always preferable.
- Find your “why”
Every goal setting, plan-making enthusiast will repeat the phrase “find your why.” And that’s because, without a reason to motivate you, you won’t keep going with your habit. Your why will be equivalent to the reward part of your habit loop. For example, say you want to save money by cooking at home instead of ordering a takeaway. This is your why. So your habit loop looks like this:
Dinner time – cook food – delicious food while saving money.
- Have clear instructions
Imagine you want to build a reading habit. The routine you implement is vital here. You have two options:
- Read every night before bed
- Read 10 pages of [insert book name here] when I get into bed.
Which one are you more likely to stick with? B. Why? Because there’s no room for uncertainty. You know exactly what is expected of you so you don’t need to waste any energy thinking about it, you can just do it.
- Make it easy
Your brain doesn’t like to be overwhelmed, so the easier you can make a habit the better. This means setting up equipment in advance, setting goals that are easy to achieve to build your confidence, and simplifying the routine you use in your habit.
You can always build a habit up once it is automated, but if it feels like too much work from the beginning, you won’t be motivated to do much because it will probably feel like the reward isn’t worth the effort.
- Don’t give up
The number one rule of habit formation is that consistency is key. But missing a day once in a while won’t affect your journey. So if you missed a day of your habit because you weren’t feeling up to it or life got in the way, breathe, collect your thoughts, and continue the next day.
A day or two of missed habits isn’t worth throwing your entire progress out the window for.
Start your habit formation journey today!
Now that you know how habit loops and habit stacking work, it’s up to you to work out how they will work in your life.
Grab a pen and notebook and start creating your own habit loop plan.
We can’t wait to see what new habits you form!
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