We all know them. The small routines, habits, and everyday activities that repeat day after day. At some point, we want to break free from the usual behaviour or establish new habits, but often, we fall back into old habits after a while. When we talk about lifestyle changes or transformations, we talk about behaviour and habits. So, to make changes, we must look at our habits. It makes a lot of sense to focus on the behaviour we often engage in rather than the behaviour we rarely do.
Studies show that about 40-50% of our daily behaviour is automatic and habit-based. But how do we change habits? Why is it so hard? And does it really take 66 days?
We all experience a desire to create or break specific habits. Whether it's giving up the evening sweets in front of the TV, looking at our phones before bedtime, or establishing a habit of going to the gym. When striving for long-term goals and habit changes, it often conflicts with short-term goals and old comfortable habits. This article explores how to give ourselves the most effective starting point for creating or breaking habits.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, habits are defined as: 'something that you do often and regularly, sometimes without knowing that you are doing it.' According to this definition, an example of a habit is brushing your teeth, which is a relatively automatic and unconscious action. Still, it could also be exercising three times a week, which we do often but plan to do.
Habits are a way for the brain to conserve energy. If we had to constantly think about everything, like opening the refrigerator or brushing our teeth, there would be no mental capacity left for other important things during the day. Habits are associated with a specific part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which is located close to the brainstem. There are actually examples of habitual or routine behaviour that are disconnected from a person's memory - for example, walking home without knowing which house one lives in. Additionally, we can see that animals with damaged basal ganglia have a more challenging time forming habits, such as running the same route through a maze or opening a food package.
So, the brain has found a way to automate behaviour in specific situations based on what is referred to as the habit loop in habit literature. The habit loop consists of a cue/trigger/signal that creates a craving, leading to a response that provides a reward. The specifics of the loop vary depending on the research you read, but the following image is based on James Clear's book 'Atomic Habits.'
When an action has been done enough times, the brain finds a 'default' - an automated response triggered when that signal occurs. Over time, it becomes almost like a copy-paste function, playing out nearly identically each time and requiring no mental effort. The more you repeat the same behaviour, the more immediate the reward and the stronger the neural pathways become. Forming habits requires creating a new neural pathway, like navigating through a new area in a forest. The first time you deviate from the familiar path, you must tread cautiously and watch where you step to avoid branches and other obstacles ahead - the brain will expend energy on dealing with the new situation and trying to find a solution. It could be that after a hard day at work, you come home to an empty house, and to alleviate the situation (with a desire to get rid of an unpleasant feeling of boredom or to reward yourself for the day being over), you decide to have something sweet, maybe some cake or some chocolate. The next time you come to that spot in the forest, there will be a slightly clearer path than the first time you went. This means that the next time the situation arises, you will have a greater tendency to have that sweet treat when you come home from a tough day and nobody is home. Thus, the trail becomes more apparent, making it easier to navigate the forest without thinking about where to step.
Habits are so effective because they provide a reward right here and now. When we talk about rewards in this context, it actually means a reduction in discomfort. All habits effectively get us to do something that breaks the current situation and the feelings it entails. It can come all the way from childhood, where a sense of inadequacy or sadness could be alleviated or reduced by eating. Whether eating when bored, looking at our phones after a hard day, or associating relaxation with eating in front of the TV. Habits come in many shades and forms
Unfortunately, habits don't really disappear. The good news is habits can be outcompeted. Objectively, as professionals, we can't say whether a habit is good or bad for an individual. Therefore, it's difficult to provide general solutions for what to do because what works for one may not necessarily work for another. We must define bad habits as 'a habit that prevents you from being the person you want to be and living the life you want to live in the long run.' That is, the habit has a reward here and now but negative consequences in the long run, and a clear example could be smoking a cigarette. Put differently, eating sweets in front of the TV every night may be a bad habit for one person but a good habit for another.
The titles (and, of course, the content) of the newer habits books can point us toward where our focus should be with behaviour change. BJ Fogg's 'Tiny Habits' and James Clear's 'Atomic Habits' suggest that there can be significant behaviour change in even tiny adjustments. Clear and his book on Atomic Habits has become popular, as he argues convincingly that success doesn't happen overnight, even though it may often seem that way from the outside. Instead, it's the habits that accumulate over time. The point? If you can get just 1% better every day, your yield will be enormous over time!
According to Clear, the challenge of changing habits is mainly due to two things: we usually try to change the wrong things, and we try to change our habits in the wrong way. We generally set goals well: 'I want to lose 10 kg.' 'I want to start exercising.' But while the goal is good, we also tend to overlook the processes that lead to the goal. The goal gives you a direction, but not the methods or systems to help you work towards that direction. So, you can have a goal of not making as much mess in the house, but if your system leads to clutter, you won't get rid of the cause of the mess. And as Clear says,
'It's not your goal that determines whether you succeed, but your systems that determine if you don't.'
The problem is that we generally focus too much on the direction of change - i.e. the goal. Most people set a goal and may figure out the processes they should follow to achieve it, but often, they need to consider the beliefs governing their actions. We rarely think about our view of ourselves, and the old identity can easily sabotage the new plans for change. You may be familiar with entrenched understandings of who we define ourselves as, such as 'I'm someone who is addicted to sugar,' or 'I'm not a very active person,' etc. So be aware of how you talk about yourself and your behaviour because it affects your habits.
So instead of saying, 'I'm a person who wants this,' we should say, 'I'm a person who is this.' The more proud you are of a specific part of your identity, the more motivated you will be to stick to its associated habits. So, your goal should not be to write a book. The goal is to become a writer. The goal should not be to run a marathon. The goal is to become a runner.
According to Clear, your habits are a way you express your identity. Every time you write a page, you are a writer. Every time you exercise, you are an athlete. Every time you encourage your employees, you are a leader. This way, you can more easily identify with the process and stick to the behaviour better. Each habit then becomes like a suggestion - maybe I'm like this? So, what is your goal, and who do you want to be?
Now that we have gone through an essential aspect of behaviour change, we can look at some of the best strategies for creating change. There are many different habit strategies, but the two most effective are called Mental Contrasting combined with Implementation Intention.
Mental Contrasting is a strategy where you imagine the future state on one side and, on the other side, the challenges that can arise on the way to the goal. It could be imagining what it would be like to weigh less and thinking about the behaviour you have when the goal is achieved, but on the other hand, also knowing that it requires hard work and a lot of mental effort to break current patterns, etc.
After reflecting on both sides, you perform the implementation intention, which is:
I will (BEHAVIOUR) at (TIME) in (PLACE)
People who use mental contrasting with implementation intention are far more likely to perform a specific behaviour in the studies compared to those who do not use mental contrasting and implementation intention.
Furthermore, habit stacking works really well:
After (OLD HABIT), I will (NEW HABIT)
Habit stacking is a way to find a current habit and link the new desired behaviour to it. The more your new habit is associated with a specific signal, the more likely you will notice when it is time to act. An example of habit stacking can be all your habits in the bathroom in the morning, where one leads to another.
Also, have a visual reward system: cross things off on a calendar or move something from one bowl to another every time you perform your habit. This way, you get a reward right here and now, which we know is important for the brain to want to seek out this behaviour again. BJ Fogg talks about creating your own rewards, to get animmediate effect, like doing a little victory dance or a high-five. Just saying it out loud can also work as a reward.
Those techniques are mainly used to establish new habits and behaviour patterns. Breaking current patterns requires a different approach - at least in terms of initial strategy. Here, it requires defining the situation first, then stopping and becoming curious about your behaviour: What is the purpose of this behaviour? What is it distracting me from? What do I feel? What do I need to address right now? What else would give me that feeling? The more aware you are, the more details you will find about your habit. In this way, you can also prepare for what you will do next time this habit arises - for example, with the above habit strategies. 'Next time I feel bored/have a demanding task at work, etc., and head to the kitchen cupboard or the treat drawer, I will ask myself: Do I really want this snack, or am I trying to escape something? Are there other things I can do when I feel like this?'
As we described in the beginning, it requires more awareness in the initial phase to perform the habits, but over time, you will find that the habit becomes more and more automated. It may take less than 66 days to establish a new habit. It's difficult to give a precise number for habit changing, but it can be anywhere from 1 day to 300 days, and it may depend on the number of repetitions. The more you practice something, the better you become at it.
By incorporating elements from the above, you will be better equipped to deal with your current habits and have a better approach to changing your behaviour. With a greater understanding of your behaviour and why you do what you do, it will be easier to maintain the habits in situations where you're not motivated. This is a general framework that only accounts for some of the nuances involved in habit and behaviour change. At Embla, we talk with our members about their habits and how to best break the old patterns or establish new habits.
So, if you have some habits that are hard to overcome, book an initial conversation with a nurse here so you can delve into your challenges and become the person you want to be.
Clear, J. (2018). Atomic Habits. Published by Random House.
Duhigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit. Published by Random House.
Fogg, BJ. (2019). Tiny Habits - The Small Changes That Change Everything. Published by Harvest.
Cambridge Dictionary ‘habit’. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/habit#