Habits 101: How to Make and Break Habits in a Way that Works
Updated: Apr 13, 2021
Breaking old habits and creating new ones can sometimes feel like an uphill battle. Luckily, it doesn't have to be this way.
Before getting into the nitty gritty of habits, I first want to define what a habit is.
A habit, according to Merriam-Webster, is an acquired mode of behaviour that has become nearly or completely involuntary. In other words, it's an activity you do without thinking. There is no need to make a clear decision, because it basically happens on it's own.
Think of it as happening in our brain's autopilot mode. After all, 95% of what we do in a day happens while we're on autopilot. Holy moly. that's a lot!
This is a good thing. Imagine if you had to think every time you needed to breathe.
How do we form a habit?
There's a lot of information online telling us you can form a new habit in 21 days. To some extent, this is true. However, there are a lot of factors at play here that need to be considered.
Let's first look at creating a habit and then I'll circle back to the time it takes.
Like the definition above says, to form a habit - a behaviour change - you need to repeat the behaviour over and over again until it becomes natural or involuntary. Add in a fixed time of day when you do this and bingo! You're off to building a habit.
But what happens when we first try to start a new behaviour? The answer: we have to make the decision to actually perform it time and time again. It's this decision making process that gets in the way of creating the habit.
Anytime you say "I'll start tomorrow", you're making a decision not to start.
This is why repetition is so important, especially when combined with a specific time.
Think of your brain like a 2 year old child. As a mother of 2 young kids, the sentence "how many times do I have to tell you?" comes to mind. Like a small child, our brain needs to be taught in tiny, innie, mini baby steps, with extra love, rewards and self-compassion.
The more you repeat the behaviour, the more likely it is to stick and the need to make a decision about it is removed. The action of doing the behaviour actually skips the decision making part of our brain all together. Cool eh?! Well, it is for this nerdy-ish gal.
How long does it take to create a habit?
Here's the fun part.
Creating a habit can happen in 21 days, less even, if you truly belief in the behaviour and see the activity as rewarding. At the same time, there can be no old habit in the way, trying to override your new behaviour. If there is, it will likely take you longer to develop a habit. Plus, remember, you have to see the new behaviour as rewarding.
Some other factors come into play here as well, like how tired you are, if the new behaviour is externally motivated (I want to look good for others) or intrinsically motivated (I want to look good for myself based on my own standards of what looking good means and not anyone else's).
To explain this more, I'll give you 2 examples from my life. One where there was no old habit at all, making things very easy and a second example where there was (ok, sort of still is) an old habit making it more difficult to create a new one.
No old habit = new behaviour became a habit quite quickly
No lies here, I don't workout a lot. I jog twice a week, I do morning stretches, the occasional yoga and I run around after a 4.5 year old and a 3 year old. Wait a second, I do flipping workout a lot!
Anyhoo (yes, hoo), the behaviour I started in December 2020 is to do leg workouts while brushing my teeth. At first my husband thought I was a weirdo (and in some ways I am), but after about 15 days even he got used to my bathroom lunges.
It took no time at all to make this a habit morning and night. If one of my kids interrupts me, I still feel the urge to complete my routine even after I finished brushing.
There was no other habit interfering with my leg workout. Rather than just standing there, I started moving. Easy peasy lemon squeezy!
Old habit = new behaviour is challenging to implement
My old habit is a Netflix addiction. My husband and I got hooked on 'The 100" and practically binge watched all 7 seasons, to the very ridiculous end of Bellamy's character. Ugh!
Watching TV for me is like a way of switching off from "mommy mode". I love my kids, but to have a few hours of no one calling my name or pulling on me is also wonderful. And I love TV. It's so fun, entertaining and fantastically dreamy. Ahhhh....
But I know watching the boob tube is not the healthiest way to switch off - and to point out, totally switching off is never healthy either. So, my hubby and I decided we wanted to create new, healthy habits as part of our evening routine.
Rather than getting addicted to yet another Netflix (and/or HBO) series - we were walking TV guides from 2018 to end 2020 - we decided to start writing and meditating and/or doing yoga in the evenings.
Now on month 3 of this new behaviour, I can honestly say it has yet to reach the habit stage. We truly have to decide to not watch TV on certain days and set aside time each evening for our healthier routine.
We both love the benefits of writing and meditating - we do this every day regardless - but we also know if we turn on the tube, we'll be sucked in for at least 1 if not 3 episodes of something.
On a positive note though, we are continuing with our writing/meditating, we're watching significantly less TV and our sleep quality is improving as a result.
What's the easiest way to get rid of an old habit and build a new one?
The easiest and most effective way to to get rid of an old habit is to start slowly. By slowly, I mean really, really slow.
Take my Netflix addiction. We didn't toss our TV out the window and say never again. Although this may have worked too. Instead, we started by picking days when we would and wouldn't watch TV. Yes, we did (and still do) get sucked into multiple episodes on TV nights, but there is no TV at all on non-TV nights. We see this as a positive change.
Also, we don't punish ourselves for watching too much TV. Instead we say ok, "we watched too much again" and compassionately go on with our life. There is no beating ourselves up about it.
Yes, old habits do die hard, but often it's because people literally go all in, or nothing at all.
The point is to slowly remove the unwanted behaviour - half a bag of chips on the couch instead of a full bag and work your way down until there are no chips at all in your mouth... not the bowl. Whatever the habit, go ssssslllllooooowwwwllllyyyyy.
The slower you go, the more likely you are to make the change and stick with it.
To build a new habit, it works exactly the same. Slowly and compassionately.
For example, if you want to build a new habit of working out, what's the strategy you currently use? Is it "I'm going to go to the gym 3-5 days a week?" Maybe you want to start running, so tell yourself that starting on Monday you are going to jog every second day.
If you're starting from scratch, that's a lot of pressure and your brain absolutely does not like pressure.
Tell me something, when you start this regime, do you drop it quickly or use the excuse "my muscles are sore" or maybe some other type of excuse to not repeat the activity? I know I would. It's hard to go from 0 to 100 in a week's time.
Instead, try this: start with 1 jumping jack or 1 sit-up. Really! Get a routine going at a specific time of day too. After about 3-5 days, add a second one, 3-5 days later add a 3rd. If you're feeling up to it, add on two more the next time. Build the habit first without over exhausting your mind and body.
What you'll notice is the habit will develop much quicker, because the decision is small and there is no real pressure. It's just up. Jump. Done.
It may seem like it'll take longer than the all-or-nothing approach, but the difference is, you will stick with this - one jumping jack is done in less than a second. Bam!
You can then reward yourself (remember our brain likes rewards), by giving yourself a quick high-five and then go about your day.
I used this habit forming technique to go from jogging 3 minutes to jogging 45 minutes. It only took me 9 weeks to do.
Another key thing to remember is, if you don't like lifting weights, then don't sign up with a personal trainer. Find the thing you love to do and do it more.
Changing a habit can seem difficult, but it doesn't have to be. The key is to take it slow, show yourself some compassion, reduce the pressure (1 jumping jack), reward yourself and repeat the activity at a specific time (or remove the old behaviour in baby steps). When you do, you're more likely to develop the habit and to stick with it.