To make consistent self-improvement you will occasionally need to make behavioral changes. Sometimes, this is easy. Sometimes, not so much. You decide what you want to change, and then do it. There will be times when you will feel challenged in your efforts to change, even if you know that the change is for the better.
So, what can we do to make relatively permanent changes in our behavior, if we are having difficulty sticking to new ways of doing things? How do we go about establishing a new habit, something we do automatically without considering any of the other, or previous, alternatives?
Forming Habits: The Latest Research
We have all heard that we must repeat a behavior for a certain number of days to establish a habit. Perhaps you have even tried applying this information by marking off days on your calendar until you passed that last “magic” day. Well, recent research disputes what we once thought was necessary to form a habit.
Researcher Phillippa Lally and others at the University College of London determined that you must actually do an activity for 66 days in a row before it becomes a habit! They found that if you want to do a behavior automatically, you have to repeat it daily 66 times, consecutively.
Lally, et al also discovered that when first forming a habit, the behavior is cue-dependent. That means that in order to carry out the new behavior you want to establish as a habit, you require exposure to a specific cue that will serve to “remind” you to perform the action. Such cues can be either situational, like your environment or location, or they may be contextual, that is based on something else that you do.
- Situational example: When you rise in the morning and enter the bathroom, you probably see your toothbrush or your sink. Those objects serve as visual cues for you to brush your teeth.
- Contextual example: Every morning before you eat breakfast, you want to remember to eat a piece of fruit. Your cue for this is getting out of bed in the morning or reaching the time of day when you are about to eat breakfast.
Also relevant to forming a habit is consistency. Although you are allowed to skip a day, the research recommends you go right back to performing the desired action. Even though the researchers admit that they cannot say exactly how many times in the 66 days you can skip and still form a habit, they do stress that if you are too inconsistent, the behavior will not become automatic.
How to Establish a Habit: A Quick List
Based on this research:
1. Clarify what habit you want to establish. For example, “I want to increase my vegetable servings to 5 a day” or “I will walk 30 minutes a day.”
2. Commit to repeating the behavior every day for 66 days. If you already know that you have vacation scheduled in 3 or 4 weeks, today may not be the right time to work on forming the new habit.
3. Consider what your cue will be. Will you see some object at home or will there be a time of day when you do something already? Just trusting yourself to remember to do the new behavior during your busy day may not be effective. Cues are potent reminders to help you as you work on improving yourself.
4. Think about the location. The location at which you perform the behavior matters. Will you be at home when you do the new activity? At the office? If you can stick with the same location, at least until the habit forms, you are much more likely to be successful.
5. Be consistent. Refrain from skipping the behavior during the time of establishing the habit, if at all possible.
6. Notice when the activity becomes automatic. You will know that a habit has been formed when you have reached the point where your day seems lacking if you do not perform the behavior. Success, at last!
Now that you have science to apply when you want to establish a habit, you have eliminated some of the guesswork!
Just 66 days of dedication and reminders, and you will be well on your way to a different you.
To your continued success!!
You may also be interested in reading: These 6 Small Changes will Help You Reach More of Your Goals