How to form your helpful habits and get rid of harmful?

Photo by Darina Belonogova from Pexels

What are habits and why are they needed?

Habits – any actions that we perform “on the machine”, without thinking and not making efforts. There is evidence that, out of habit, we choose media, make purchases, eat harmful snacks instead of healthy vegetables, play sports, follow the recommendations of the doctor, wash our hands and brush our teeth.

The fact that habits have become the second nature of humanity is not surprising. From the point of view of evolution, the ability to develop habits is an excellent technical solution that allows you to maintain correct behavior without any extra effort. For example, the habit of choosing berries by default, which last time turned out to be tasty and non-poisonous, could save our cave ancestor’s life and health.

However, habits are two-edged weapons. After all, to act out of habit, motivation is not needed. To run the program, it suffices to be in the circumstances in which this very habit has been formed.

It is great when an athlete who has come to the gym immediately has a desire to get up on the treadmill. But if a person who has stopped smoking, being in a familiar company of smokers, “shoots” a cigarette from a friend, there is little good in that.

Habit is the very thing that helps to connect good intentions and real behavior. It depends solely on our habits, whether we will lead a healthy lifestyle or again find ourselves on a sofa in the company of chips and a laptop.

Where do habits come from and why are they so difficult to change?

From the point of view of physiology, habits are ready-made neural connections that automatically turn on when a person finds himself in certain circumstances. These neural connections are stored in the striatum – a part of the brain that is responsible for creating sustainable behaviors and making decisions.

To make it easier to understand how habits get into the brain and how it threatens us, let’s see how the habit of brushing our teeth appears.

Stage 1: the appearance of a signal-stimulus

Most of us had such an “irritant” for parents, who repeated how important it is to brush their teeth. So a new goal appeared in life – to learn how to brush your teeth. After all, no one wants mom and dad to get upset or swear.

Stage 2: the formation of a behavioral model

Now that we were in the bathroom, we knew it was time to brush our teeth. To do this, you need to gather your courage, take a brush, squeeze out the paste on it, turn on the water – in general, strain your will and do a bunch of different actions without which the matter will not happen.

Stage 3: model reproduction and habit formation

The next day, we again came to the bathroom and brushed our teeth again – at the same time, in the same place, in the same way. Over time, this was given to us all easier and simpler, until we stopped noticing how the process was going. Finish: brushing your teeth has become a habit.

If we compare how our brain worked at the second and at the end of the third stage, it will be noticed how much has changed. Previously, the brain served a bunch of small, almost unrelated tasks. Now small tasks turned into one action which is easily started and executed, without demanding willful efforts from our side at all.

Now let’s see what follows from this.

  1. While the habit is just being formed, it’s easy to intervene. While we were just learning to brush our teeth, we reflected on how much paste to squeeze onto the brush. After the habit was formed, we generally stopped thinking about it.
  2. Changing the finished habit is very difficult. You probably noticed this when the house turned off the hot water. It seems you know that there is no water, but your hands still reach for the “hot” faucet.
  3. Get rid of the habit is difficult. Ready habit is a very real group of neurons in the brain that will not disappear simply because we suddenly wanted to. Even if the house will block the water for a month, our habit of brushing our teeth, most likely, will not go anywhere.

How to “break” bad habits and “build” good?

Let’s be honest: most likely, “breaking” a bad habit will not work. We remember that a habit is a very real part of the brain, tuned to “automatic triggering”. It is much easier to give the old habit a new life. For example, instead of giving up eating french fries, you have to replace the habit of eating potatoes with the habit of snacking on apples.

At the same time creating a new habit is usually much easier than overcoming the old one. To get a new good habit, you need to go through 5 steps:

  1. Choose a goal. Let it be mandatory half-hour walks in the morning.
  2. Come up with simple daily activities that will help you reach your goal. For example, you can get up every morning half an hour earlier.
  3. Plan when and where you will perform the selected action. If you have time, then instead of going to work by bus, you can walk the distance to work.
  4. Perform an action every time you are in the right place at the right time. In our case, for example, it is impossible to spend the vacated time on the social network. Deciding to walk means you have to walk.
  5. Have patience. It takes time to get into the habit of going to work on foot. You should not expect that the habit of walking will appear in just a couple of days or weeks.

Is it true that any habit can be formed in 21 days?

Not. The myth that it takes only three weeks to form a habit appeared after plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz published his book Psycho-Cybernetics in 1960. The doctor noticed that, on average, his patients got used to the new face in 21 days, and the entire scientific world took his word for it – until in 2009, English researchers decided to test this belief experimentally.

The experiment involved 96 people. Each participant chose a good habit that he wanted to form: for example, drinking a bottle of water at lunch or running 15 minutes before eating. The experiment lasted 12 weeks.

It turned out that in order to form a habit, on average it takes more than two months, or rather, 66 days. At the same time, some participants in the experiment had only 18 days to form a habit, while others took 254 days.

In general, it is better not to expect that a good habit will form in three weeks, rather, it will be a period of two to eight months – it’s just that time for most people to grow through new nerve connections in the striatum.

What to do if you can not get good habits?

Try to adjust tactics. Here is what you can do:

Choose a more realistic goal. Simple and understandable actions do not take much time and therefore become familiar more quickly. In addition, even small changes in lifestyle bring more benefits than their absence.

In our example, if you do not have the strength to walk to work, you can set a goal for yourself to go to a couple of stops, and then take the bus.

Measure success. It seems to almost all people forming a new habit that it appears too slowly. It may be worthwhile to have a checklist in which you can evaluate (in points) how easy the new habit was given to you.

For example, 1 point – barely forced me to go for a walk. And 10 points – did not notice how I walked the distance to work because at that time I was talking to a colleague by phone.

Do not scold or punish yourself if the habit does not add up. We remember that a habit is a bunch of new neurons that need time to grow. In the end, everything will turn out – so the habit will not go anywhere!

What is the result?

  1. Habit – very real neurons in the brain, which are responsible for the automation of certain actions in certain circumstances.
  2. To form a habit, on average it takes a little more than two months. When a habit is ready, it is much easier to replace one habit with another than to get rid of it for good.
  3. Anyone can develop good habits. The main thing – to comply with the instructions, do not rush and do not scold yourself if the habit was not possible to develop immediately. Over time, everything will work out.

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