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how to change habits

How often have you come away from a training course, finished a coaching session, read a self-development book or watched a TEDx and been mesmerised by the message?

Whether the experience equipped you with a new skill, refined a behaviour or improved a strength, reflecting on the experience, your thoughts probably went something like this:

I am changed! I’m going to adopt this message and be a totally different person – a better person – from now on.’

With the change made, initially we feel great. So good, in fact, we tend to tell everyone about it! With a figurative spring in our step, friends, family and social media connections, all get to hear about the New You.

And, for a while, it’s all going swimmingly. Until… an unwanted presence makes a return to your life.

If it was a Facebook friend you’d have ‘unfriended’ it a long time ago; if it was a Twitter account you’d have unfollowed. But, unfortunately, in the realm of behavioural psychology, it’s not that easy.

Say hello to that disempowering behaviour known to its friends as Bad Habit.

So you started a New Habit, you made a change. Well, Bad Habit shows up to ensure you revert to your old behaviour. It’s sole purpose in life is to hold you back and prevent you from developing.

Just like a magnet, the bad habit pulls you back towards your old way of behaving. And, just like a magnet, the pull is irresistible to us. So much so, that we’re often completely unaware of what’s happening until it’s too late.

Habits are a part of us

What started out well somehow fizzled out. From New Year’s Resolutions to new fitness regimes, from beach body diet plans to home improvements or self improvement, we’ve all fallen back into old, often bad, habits. I’m sure you can relate to this.

How can something as empowering and positive as a new habit become a thing of the past so quickly?

Unsurprisingly, the reason behind our failures can be traced to habits. We are all creatures of habit – good and bad. Our predilection for habit forming is as much a part of our genetic makeup as fingerprints. And, just like fingerprints, almost nothing can erase them.

So perhaps the real question to ask is: How can we sustain an empowering and positive new habit long enough to replace an old behaviour?

Well, the good news is, it’s completely possible and part of the answer lies in our brains.

Habits are there for a reason

According to a report from Duke University (Neal, Wood & Quinn, 2006) 40% of our actions are not conscious decisions, but habits.

Habits allow our brains to be massively efficient. How does this happen? Repeated enough, our brains are able to convert daily tasks and behaviours into habits. In turn, this creates greater capacity in the brain to focus on the more complex tasks we need to complete.

A bit like shorthand versus longhand writing, habits create more ‘page space’ for processing complex information.

One of the best examples of habits in action is driving a car. Cast your mind back to when you were learning to drive. Remember the brain capacity you used when you were learning? All the coordination you required? All the complex manoeuvres you needed to commit to memory?

Now fast forward to being a competent driver. Imagine making a regular journey – perhaps the school run or the commute to work. How many times have you made that journey only to arrive at your destination and ask yourself: How on earth did I get here?’

This is a perfect example of our brains moving from conscious decision making (learner driver) to non-conscious actions (competent driver) – also known as habits.

If our brains didn’t form habits we would find ourselves in a never-ending cycle of thought and indecision. We would do nothing other than think constantly!

So, you see, by helping us function at a basic level habits are hugely beneficial, but only so long as that magic 40% results in empowering and positive non-conscious actions.

How long does it take to change a habit?

Do a quick internet search and you’ll find a myriad differing opinions on how long it takes to change a habit, varying from ‘do something 3 times’ to ‘300 days’.

In reality, there is no stock answer. It will always depend on the person, the environment and the type of behaviour they are trying to adopt. Take, for instance, a recent study conducted by University College London (Lally et al., 2009).

The 12 week study closely observed the habits of 96 people. Participants were asked to form a new habit from a variety of different activities, such as ‘run everyday before breakfast’ or ‘drink a bottle of water with dinner’.

Participants were then asked to report daily on two things: (1) whether or not they did the activity and (2) how automatic the behaviour felt.

At the end of 12 weeks researchers analysed how long it took to each person to go from the activity being a conscious decision to automatically doing it (a habit).

The results of the survey were really interesting. It took on average 66 days for a new habit to form, with the actual time it took to adopt a new behaviour varying between 18 to 254 days.

In essence, it can take between two and eight months for a new habit to form so be prepared for the long haul if you really want to change a habit.

If you are ready to make some changes, in Part Two of this blog I’ll explain how you can start to change a habit in 5 simple steps.