The start of a new year brings all this New Year’s resolution talk. Many people don’t realize that waiting until a new year to start or stop doing something has no logic involved and can lead to failure more often than not.
This failure occurs because these resolutions are often built around procrastination (waiting until a specific date to start) and are unrealistic. So instead of setting a grand New Year’s resolution, we encourage you to focus on habit-building (or breaking) instead.
This article will briefly overview habits, their importance, types, and how to create new habits. With this information, you’ll be on your way to making life changes without having to set an overpromising New Year’s resolution.
What is a habit?
Habits are learned behaviors that we regularly demonstrate. They are practically second nature and don’t require much thought to complete. A habit can be as small as rolling out of bed on the same side each morning or as complex as exercising daily.
Most of our day-to-day behavior is dictated by habits. In fact, it’s estimated that up to 70% of our waking behavior is made up of habitual behavior, says neuroscientist Andrew Huberman.
Knowing this, it’s clear that habits play a critical role in our lives, but where do they come from?
Where Do Habits Come From?
Habits are learned consciously or subconsciously. It’s our brain’s way of programming certain behaviors and actions so that we do them more automatically without requiring too much thought. By automating certain behaviors, our brain frees up room to focus on more important matters.
Once a habit is developed, it can be hard to change. That’s because creating a habit means a change in the nervous system has occurred. The nervous system controls everything in our body; it’s the command center. Through neuroplasticity, our brain can rewire and change itself.
Neuroplasticity is the ability of a neural network to grow and reorganize, causing the brain to function differently than before.
When creating good habits, we intentionally rewire our brains through self-directed neuroplasticity. We can use several proven practices and strategies to implement new habits, which we will learn more about later (See “How to Form a Habit” section).
Habit Vs. Routine
After learning the definition of a habit, it probably sounds similar to a routine. That’s because it is. Habits and routines are repeated, habitual actions that become almost second nature. A routine consists of a sequence of habits, among other things.
The main difference is a habit involves minimal conscious thought, while a routine may require intention and consciousness. For example, a habit would be checking your phone as soon as you wake up, whereas a routine would be taking your vitamins, drinking water, and doing skincare before breakfast every day.
Why Are Habits Important?
Habits are important because they help us organize our behaviors almost intuitively. As previously mentioned, when our brain automates certain behaviors (like brushing our teeth, washing our hands, etc.), it can focus on matters of higher importance, like keeping us alive.
While we can see clear biological benefits, there are also several physical, emotional, and mental advantages of developing habits–particularly good habits.
Benefits of Habits
Habits become almost reflexive, innate responses. If you have a habit, you will likely still do it even with no motivation. For instance, if you have the habit of brushing your teeth before bed, you will likely still do it even if you’re exhausted.
Habits create recurring patterns that provide us with consistency. In turn, consistency helps us build momentum and encourages us to keep working towards our goals. For example, if you have the habit of doing 20 minutes of a language-learning app before bed, this will keep you moving towards your ultimate goal of mastering the language.
You can use good habits to replace bad habits. When our lives are full of healthy habits, the quality generally increases. For example, a wellness-related habit like walking each morning or journaling for 20 minutes a day can significantly impact your happiness levels and well-being.
Types of Habits
There are several types of habits humans encounter daily. Some of these are positive habits, while others are negative. A few examples are:
- Eating habits - the foods you choose, packing your lunch vs. eating out, having something sweet after dinner, etc.
- Communication habits - making eye contact, the way you greet someone, saying someone’s name out loud to remember it, showing empathy, etc.
- Productivity habits - making to-do lists, writing down your grocery list, taking on more challenging tasks first, limiting phone use while working, etc.
- Unwanted habits - biting your nails, interrupting conversations, smoking, slouching, etc.
How to Form or Change a Habit
We’ve all heard the saying, “it takes 21 days to make a habit.” While this can be true for some people, it may not be accurate for others. The time needed to build a habit will vary depending on the type of habit and the person.
A study done by habit researcher Dr. Phillippa Lally showed that the duration for two people to form the same habit could range from 18 to 254 days. The habit tested in the study was taking a walk after dinner every night. For some, it took less time to make it a habit, while for others, it took longer.
Regardless of the time, there are a couple of principles to keep in mind when forming good habits or changing bad ones.
This rule states that it takes 21 days to build a habit and 90 days to make it into a permanent lifestyle change. The 21/90 rule is a general guideline based on the average time it takes; we know from the Lally study that these numbers can vary.
By sticking to a personal goal for 21 and then 90 days, you can achieve those goals you’ve been trying to reach and make them into a permanent life habit.
Remember these numbers when you’re working toward your next goal, and remind yourself to stick with it; eventually, it will stick with you.
3 R’s of Habit Formation and Change
The 3 R’s define a simple 3-step pattern one can follow to make a habit.
By being aware of this pattern, you can resist unwanted habits and replace them with healthier alternatives. For example, instead of putting your phone on your nightstand, you keep it in another room at night. This change can help you get into the habit of not checking your phone first thing in the morning.
Other Habit Formation Practices
- Make it a daily practice - when you are initially building habits, do them daily. Doing them a couple of times a week will make it harder to lock it in as a habit.
- Pair new habits with another habit you already have - other habits can act as a trigger or cue to complete the new goal. For example, if you want to floss your teeth, you can pair it with brushing your teeth each night. As soon as you do one, you do the other.
- Remove temptation - when trying to quit a habit, remove the thing that tempts you. If your goal is to stop eating junk food, and you usually eat it when watching TV, you can watch less. Instead, go for a walk or read a book.
- Create a specific plan - be detailed and specific with your habits. Set a time limit and specify when you will complete them. For example, study Spanish every day after breakfast for 30 minutes.
- Lean on others for support - it’s much easier to stick to new habits when you have someone to hold you accountable. Find a gym buddy, get your housemate on board with cooking healthy food, read with your partner in bed each night, etc. You’re not alone!
Forming habits can be tricky if you don’t fully understand how it works. When taking on a new habit, remind yourself that it will get easier after three weeks or so. Use habit-forming practices and be consistent. You got this!