Have you ever tried to create a new habit – maybe an exercise schedule or waking up at 5am every day – only to have it fall to the wayside a couple of weeks later?
Click start to play today’s Spell It, where we temper the ‘thrill’ of acquiring a new habit, with science-backed techniques to help us stay steady on the path for years to come.
Good habits can change your life. Whether you’re trying to exercise, meditate, read more, wake up early or something else, creating a new habit takes time and effort. But you may be surprised to learn that you’ve already formed many habits, and you’re following them to the tee, without realising it.
According to a US-based Duke University study, published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science in 2006, about 40 per cent of what we do daily feels like a decision, but is actually a habit. For instance, the simple acts of brushing your teeth in the morning, or showering before you sleep, are not just decisions you make – they’re habits you’ve inculcated with years of practice.
Every habit loop is composed of three parts. First, the cue, or the trigger. Second, the routine, which is the physical and mental sequence of actions. And third, the reward or benefits.
According to a November 2019 report in the US-based self-improvement website Better Humans, here are ways you can make any habit stick:
1. Identify the routine
You likely have a routine you’d like to make into a habit – for instance, exercising or journaling. If there’s something you’d like to do, decide when you’re going to do it, and how it relates to other habits you already have.
2. Isolate a cue
The routine comes right after the cue – for instance, you brush your teeth (routine) after you get out of bed (cue). A location, time, emotional state, immediately preceding action or other people could be considered as cues, but usually, the best cue is a combination of these factors. The idea is to make it specific enough to relate to your routine, but not so general that it doesn’t allow for the habit to happen. For instance, if you are an early bird, you could use the cue of waking up at 5am as a trigger to exercise. But this would be much tougher for a person who rarely wakes up so early.
3. Choose a reward
Rewards help teach you that habits are worth building. Although some habits, like exercise, have intrinsic benefits, you can give yourself small rewards in the initial stages, whenever you complete a routine. Even better, reflect on the benefits your new habit is bringing you, and research on how it can improve your life – this will motivate you to keep going.
4. Start small
When starting a habit, a surge of motivation energises us. But it does fade when time passes, and then, it all depends on how disciplined you are. If, like most people, you struggle to maintain discipline in new routines, make sure you’re setting yourself up with something really easy. For instance, instead of launching into a 45-minute stretch of exercise on day one, start with 10 minutes. Set a time limit that’s not too easy but not too challenging, and stick to it until you’re satisfied, and ready to slowly increase the difficulty. Small increments add up to big changes over time.
5. Repeat the habit
A July 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that it takes 66 days for a new behaviour to become automatic, on average. So, it’s worth repeating your habit loop for at least two months before expecting it to become a routine part of your life. Stay consistent and repeat until the routine becomes automatic, until it feels like something is missing, if you skip it. Then, even when you reach ‘the dip’ – a temporary setback that can be overcome with persistence – you’ll have enough discipline to keep going.