Make it or break it: how to establish good habits for the new semester

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In the month increasingly reported to be the hardest of the year, society shoves the ‘New Year, New You’ marketing scheme down our throats. Advertisements for gym memberships and Dry January take over our screens, offering quick fixes to solve all our problems, setting us up to fail even before the year has properly begun. Being wary of such silver bullets, here is another way of understanding habits, both good and bad, and how we can really change them.

Why do we have habits?

The world is a complex and ever-changing place. This presents problems for our brains, which must process our surroundings, thoughts and emotions on top of regulating bodily processes. So it is no surprise that our brains take shortcuts where possible to efficiently perceive, compute and control our lives. Habits, such as mindlessly hitting the snooze button on your alarm even on the day you have to get up for an early flight, are the brain’s way of expending as little effort as possible on actions that we do repeatedly.

This explains why habits feel automatic but also shows us why it is so difficult to change a habit. This involves re-programming one’s brain into thinking about an action it has taught itself to do without thinking. Since this takes so much effort, when trying to change habits it is best to approach the challenge one by one.

The habit loop

In his 2012 bestseller, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg gives a simple but powerful description of habits, explaining them as a circular process, termed the habit loop: Cue à Routine à Reward.

The cue refers to the context that triggers the habitual behaviour. The routine is the habit itself, the action that is repeated every time the brain reacts to the cue. Finally, the reward is anything pleasurable that reinforces the whole process, making it more enticing to repeat the response.

In practice, the habit loop looks like this: Say that whenever you go back to your room you place your keys in the same place. The cue would be getting back to your room. The routine, putting the keys in their place. And the reward might be being able to find the keys easily when you leave, as this makes you more likely to do the same thing next time.

Although simplistic, this model of habits can have a powerful effect on how we approach making new habits and breaking old ones.

Making a habit

One approach to making a habit is to follow Duhigg’s model. If one wanted to take up running, then instead of merely planning to run 15 minutes a day at some point, it is more helpful to pick a cue such as changing into running shoes as soon as one gets back from the day’s last lecture.  This will both serve as a reminder to go running and stop one from putting it off all day. Next, one needs to act in response to the cue by going running. (Easier said than done.) Finally, one should choose a reward, which can be as simple as the feeling of pride and accomplishment, to train oneself that the routine is worth repeating. As one repeats this set pattern of behaviour, over time the habit will become a part of one’s daily routine, as ingrained as the automatic urge to check Facebook multiple times a day.

Breaking a habit

Duhigg writes: “You cannot extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.” The mistake people make, according to Duhigg, is to eradicate a habit without creating a new behaviour to replace it. This ignores the motivation behind the habit: the reward. Instead of relying on willpower, one should keep the same cue and reward but change the routine to break a habit successfully.

Here is an example: Some people develop the bad habit of clicking their pens repeatedly when reading. The cue for this habit may be feelings of boredom, and the reward is the satisfying tactile action and the distraction it provides. It may not be possible to change this cue. However, one can alter the routine to something that provides the same reward as clicking the pen. One could soundlessly drum one’s fingers on one’s knee or follow the words on the page with one’s finger. Both still involve a tactile sensation but without irritating everyone in earshot. Once one has decided on a plan, it is about repeating it long enough until the new routine becomes second nature.

Magic numbers?

But how long does it take for a behaviour to become a habit? Many of us have been told at some point that a habit can be made in 21 days, or some other plausible-sounding period. This glorified urban myth originates from a book published in 1960 by Maxwell Maltz, who practiced not psychology but plastic surgery. Maltz claimed: “It usually requires a minimum of about 21 days to effect any perceptible change in a mental image,” basing this on his own observations about the average time it takes phantom limb sensations to cease in amputees and how long patients reported it took to get used to new bodily enhancements after plastic surgery. Hence, Maltz was principally talking about self-image, not our behaviour and our habits.

More recently, a 2009 study into ‘habit formation in the real world’ conducted by Phillipa Lally, Cornelia Van Jaarsveld, Henry Potts and Jane Wardle found that participants reported it taking anywhere between 18 to 254 days for a repeated behaviour to become an automatic habit, suggesting there are no magic numbers after all.

What has been suggested here may appear far less seductive than multimillion-pound advertising campaigns. But what remains clear is that it is possible to effect real change in our behaviour. By focusing on one or two habits, identifying what the cues and rewards should be and working on establishing a new routine, 2016 might just herald a new you after all.


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