Last week, we covered the power of changing one’s mindset— how small adjustments to one’s routine and thinking can greatly influence one’s career and livelihood. But in addition to a positive mindset is the importance of consistency and follow-through. This week, we’ll discuss how habits work and how to form more positive habits.
The Science of Habits
Our habits are formed in the part of the brain known as the basal ganglia, responsible for the development of emotions, memories, and pattern recognition. When we repeat a set of actions, for example, driving a car or working out at the gym, the basal ganglia combines the separate actions into one, easy-to-remember habit, a process known as “chunking”. It’s also how people can remember information such as addresses or passwords.
Certain habits can bring us greater enjoyment than others, creating a more engaging feedback loop. When the outcome of a habit is desirable, like eating snacks or playing video games, our brain releases a chemical called dopamine. Even when we’re not doing that action or habit, over time the brain will come to crave that chemical, forcing you to eat more, play more, or continue engaging in that addicting habit.
Another factor in habit formation is the concept of friction. Habit friction adds undesirable unnecessary steps to a habit, for example, a long commute to the gym can make us less likely to keep the habit. Conversely, you can decrease habit friction by listening to music on the commute, or attending with a friend, to make the habit easier and more enjoyable to repeat.
The Habit Loop
Habits are broken down into four stages: cue, craving, response, reward.
The cue tells your brain to start a certain habit. When we see images of food, naturally our mouth starts to water or our stomachs make less than pleasant sounds. When we see people yawn, we naturally yawn in response. Cues can also be a sound (like a baby crying), a particular time of the day (a sunrise indicating it’s time to get up), or some other visual reminder.
The craving is the motivational push to act on the cue. This can vary depending on the internal state of our body. If we’re hungry, the cue of a picture of food can make us hungry enough to seek out our next meal. But if we’re not hungry, then the craving isn’t there and the picture becomes just another picture.
The response is the habit you actually perform. After we see a cue and develop a craving, we act on that craving. Using the same example, we may decide to look up restaurants online or check the fridge for any leftovers.
Finally, the reward is the satisfaction and lesson learned for informing future habits. It’s the dopamine released in your brain that says “congratulations, this is what you wanted.” This is when our hunger is finally satisfied with the bite of a meal or the sip of a drink, thus completing the habit loop.
Stages of Forming a Habit
Habits don’t just become habits overnight. Instead, people go through a few phases or stages in the formation of a habit. They are as follows:
Honeymoon phase. This is when you are greatly inspired by a recent book you read or a friend’s success story, that you want to start a new habit. There is high energy and excitement to take on each day tackling your new habit.
Fight Thru phase – After a few days, weeks, or even months, setbacks and struggles make the habit harder to keep. You may experience boredom, tiredness, or a general lack of purpose and energy that you had when you started. If you are serious about forming the habit, continue to ask yourself why you started in the first place.
The Second Nature phase – Once you push past the first two phases, the habit begins to set in the basal ganglia portion of your brain. It no longer takes conscious decision-making to do the act, instead it becomes natural and automatic. The benefit of this is that your brain is free to think or focus on other aspects while you continue to perform the intended habit.
The Different Types of Habits
Keystone Habits are small habits that lead to major changes. Sometimes all it takes is a slight adjustment or addition to your daily habits to start forming other positive habits. For example, quitting cigarettes can save you money and lead to healthier habits like exercise. Or making your bed in the morning can energize you to take on other small tasks throughout the day.
Mental Habits are habits to do with strengthening and conditioning your mind. Your brain is just like any other muscle, and it needs to be exercised so it can work at optimal capacity. This can include sleeping the right amount of hours each night, meditation, creative arts, or even therapy.
Physical Habits are habits that focus on the strengthening of your body. Stretching, yoga, running, walking, or any form of exercise can develop your physical wellbeing. Not only do they increase your conditioning and build muscle, but physical activity also has the added benefit of affecting your mental habits too. Activities like weightlifting, yoga, or running have similar effects on the mind as many mindfulness practices.
Productivity Habits are habits that allow you to achieve a greater level of efficiency and output. This may involve calendar blocking, Pomodoro techniques, or prioritizing quick or important tasks over longer projects. Be sure to read our other blog posts centered around productivity.
How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?
Let’s say you want to make exercise a regular part of your routine. How long does it take until it becomes a habit? The short answer: anywhere between 21 and 66 days. The longer answer: it depends on who you ask.
According to Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a famous plastic surgeon in the 1950s, patients would take 21 days to get used to their new faces, or for amputated patients to stop sensing phantom limbs. In his book, Psycho-Cybernetics, Maltz says “these, and many other commonly observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.”
The flaw in Maltz’s research was that it was anecdotal. Researchers at University College London studied how subjects formed simple habits like eating fruit with lunch or drinking water after breakfast. The study found that some people formed habits after only 18 days, while others took 254 days. On average, people took around 66 days to form a habit.
Keep in mind that both studies are around very specific cases, involving a limited number of subjects. The habit itself plays a significant role— making exercise a regular habit may take longer than drinking an additional glass of water. The lesson here is to be patient, stay consistent, and trust in your process. The habit will follow naturally.
Yes, it takes time to form a habit. But notice that the easiest habits to form can also be detrimental to our health, like binge-watching television or oversleeping. Positive habits like exercise and learning a new skill take time and patience. So don’t give up on whatever it is you’re trying to learn. You may find that you’re only a few days or weeks away from making it automatic.