Do you want to set new goals for the new year? Research shows that most new year's resolutions do not make it into a steady habit. Motivation often disappears, willpower runs out, and sometimes we lack discipline. The secret lies in habit forming. An example is brushing your teeth before bed; most of us do it every day without even thinking about it. Even if you skip it once, you always pick it up again. This principle can be applied to everything; drinking enough water, exercising, eating healthy, and even thinking positively. What do you want to change?
Habits Explained in the Brain
Habits are actions one takes daily without thinking about them. The best part is that once something becomes a habit, time and energy are left to spend on other things. The ultimate goal is to create habits that can help take you one step further towards the end goal. Sometimes habits exist subconsciously; one could have unknowingly adopted them, or they arise due to past experiences. Another option is that they may come from our reptilian brain. The reptilian brain, also known as the primal brain, is the oldest part of the brain and controls our innate and automatic self-preserving behavior patterns, which is an important survival mechanism. Since this structure operates on autopilot, it sometimes causes us to do things without realizing it. However, our brain is malleable so we can influence its patterns. The brain can make new connections between brain cells on its own, which is called neuroplasticity. It turns out that new connections are already made when repeating a behavior five times.
How Long Does It Take?
There are a lot of different theories and myths about how long it takes to form a new habit. One popular myth is that developing a new habit would take 21 days. Unfortunately, according to this study from 2009 (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ejsp.674), 21 days is not enough time for the neuropathways to form the habit-friendly patterns in the brain for the new aspired behavior. The study showed that it takes an average of 66 days to form a habit. In addition, the more significant the change, the longer it takes. So, the smaller the change, the faster it goes.
Forming a new habit can be challenging. Before something can become a habit, it takes time, energy, and patience to consciously learn this behavior for this period. To that, add the fact that our brain prefers to take the path of least resistance (i.e., least amount of energy) and that as humans, we are programmed to avoid pain. Together, all this makes it harder to maintain new behaviors. However, perseverance will eventually pay off. Once the brain is used to the new behavior and new neurological pathways have been created, the new behavior is turned into a habit.
How To Start a New Habit
1. Just start. There is no better time to start than today. Start, even if it is the middle of the week, day, or month.
2. Start small and pick a habit you want to implement, for example, drinking a glass of water every morning or hitting 10.000 steps a day. Research shows that the brain adapts more easily to small changes than to bigger ones.
3. Think about how to fit the new habit into your current life to make it realistic and achievable. For example, choose a fixed time (morning, breakfast/dinner, at night) or a specific day.
4. State the intention of the new habit positively and as concretely as possible. For example, “I want to feel more fit in three weeks, I want to eat two to three cups of vegetables a day, or I will drink a glass of water with every meal.”
5. Research your reasons for developing this habit. Why do you want to create this habit? What will it get you? What does it look like when you master this habit?
6. Track your progress, at least for the first two months. For example, if the goal is to increase daily exercise, keep track of how much exercise you get. Use a chart, agenda, or piece of paper where you can cross off the day. In addition, tracking provides better insight into the difficult moments. Finally, tracking your behavior creates the feeling of reward, increasing the chances of sticking with it.
7. Be kind to yourself. Do not strive for perfection but for consistency. Do not punish yourself when things go wrong and realize that you are in a challenging process. Be patient and give yourself time to learn it. Commit that if you forget the new habit one day, you will try it the next day again.
8. Repeat your behavior until it becomes more automatic. Once it becomes automatic, your new behavior has become a habit!
Do not get discouraged if your new habit does not come naturally. The amount of time it takes to form a new habit can vary enormously from person to person. Are you looking for guidance or an accountability person who can help you along the way? Emerald Mental Health can support you along the path toward new behaviors and habits. Contact Emerald Mental Health for a free 15-minute consultation. During the consultation, we can discuss your goals and work towards achieving your new habits!
Grohol, J. M. (2018). Need to form a new habit? give yourself at least 66 days. Psych Central. https://psychcentral.com/blog/need-to-form-a-new-habit-66-days
Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H., Potts, H. W., & Wardle, J. (2009). How are habits formed: Modelling Habit Formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998–1009. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.674
Our three brains – the Reptilian brain. The Interaction Design Foundation. (2021). https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/our-three-brains-the-reptilian-brain