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Wellbeing / Business psychology

Changing habits: how to make good ones and break the bad ones

You may not realise it, but a key pillar of any productive day is the creation of good habits. How do you go about changing habits? Ellen Jackson breaks it down nicely here.

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You’ve probably heard that it take 21 days to create a habit?

Well, guess what? It’s not true.

Recent research suggests that the simplest habits take on average about two months to establish with other more complex behaviours taking closer to eight months of consistent effort to really bed down.

The 21-day idea evolved from a book called Psycho-Cybernetics published in 1960. It had no scientific basis and just spun itself out into the world of self-development mythology, I guess because 21 days makes behaviour change sound so easy.


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What do you want to change?

Most of us have a habit that we’d like to create (or an old one we’d like to break). For instance, I’m keen to up my productivity by cutting out some mindless daily phone scrolling. (It’s my automatic ‘I don’t know what to do next’ activity. Or more accurately my ‘I know what I need to do next but it’s difficult/boring/frustrating and so I’ll just mindlessly do this instead’ activity.) If I can stop doing it I reckon I’ll reclaim at least an hour a day.

So in the interests of kicking this habit to the kerb I’ve done some research into what really works. Today I’m sharing it with you.

You’re welcome!

What is a habit?

A habit is really any behaviour that we enact automatically, without thought.

In fact, habit rules much of our waking hours. From rolling out of bed in the morning to the night time routine, we can spend an entire day engaging in one activity after another without really thinking about what we’re doing, how we’re doing it and why we’re doing it.

It’s all habit.

"We often engage repeatedly in a behaviour because we get rewarded for it"

How do we create habits?

As we do something over and over, in the same setting, we get better and better at it. When the behaviour becomes automatic, triggered by cues in our environment, that’s a habit.

Driving is the classic example. From the moment you unlock the car door you are engaging in a series of habitual behaviours to get you to where you need to go. You sit down, put the key in the ignition and your body takes over, making the required movements without any need for you to think about what you’re doing. Your environment – the car interior – activates an automatic response (driving).

How do we break a habit?

To break an unhelpful habit we need to replace it with a new, more helpful habit. To do that we need to break down the association between the trigger (the cue in your environment that prompts the behaviour) and the behaviour itself.

Step one: Notice when you do the thing you no longer want to do.

For me, it’s the mindless phone scrolling.

I’ve been observing this for the past few days and have noticed that it’s a transition activity. I do it when I’ve finished one task, and I’m transitioning to the start of the next.

For example:

  • At the end of school drop off – I’ll get back in the car and check my phone.
  • When I’ve finished writing a blog post and it’s time to move on to the next job – I’ll jump on my phone
  • I’ve gotten the stuff out to make dinner and it’s time to start actually making dinner – I’ll jump on my phone.

Paying attention is always the first step when you want to change a habit.

The next step is swapping the automatic response for something else. Self-talk helps here. I’ve been telling myself: ‘Don’t pick up the phone. You don’t need to. Just move on to the next task.’ It’s not 100 percent successful but it is helping.

Step two: Work out how the habit is rewarding you.

We often engage repeatedly in a behaviour because we get rewarded for it – usually a little dopamine hit to the brain that makes us feel good. For me, it’s the lure of an interesting or exciting message held on one of those phone apps.

If you’re struggling to break a habit:

  1. Notice the trigger
  2. Work out how the behaviour rewards you
  3. Find something else that gives you the same reward.

For me, just knowing that I’ve put the brake on my automatic phone scrolling at any given moment is enough of a dopamine hit.

How do we create a new habit?

For a new habit you need to create that automatic behaviour that’s triggered by a cue from your environment. You need to get to that point of autopilot.

Tips for success:

  1. Notice what you’re doing now. If you want to get up early and run every morning, what are you doing at the moment instead?
  2. Work out the reward for your current behaviour (staying warm in bed?) and find a replacement reward.
  3. Establish your trigger. When the alarm goes off, don’t think, just get up and go.
  4. Repeat, repeat, repeat. It will take more than 21 days but if you keep repeating the behaviour, triggered by the same cue, it will become a habit. You will get to that point of autopilot. It just might take eight months 😉

Good luck!

Do you have any bad habits you’re trying to break at the moment? Do you have any tips for changing habits?

A version of this post originally appeared on Ellen’s site and is republished here on Flying Solo with full permission.

Ellen Jackson

from Potential Psychology is a consultant business psychologist, coach, blogger and author. She is passionate about using the science of psychology to help other thrive and prosper at work and at home. Connect with Ellen on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter.

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