The Simplified Science of Habit Formation...But is it that simple?

Updated: Mar 11, 2021


We are creatures of habit. Around 40-45% of our daily behaviours are habits.


The time you get up. Cleaning your teeth. Scrolling your phone.


Habits are automated. They’re things we do with very little thought. We repeat them over and over again, in similar contexts. They run in our subconscious mind.


Habits are usually triggered by some sort of cue. They are rewarded at the end; cleaning your teeth used to be met with praise from a parent, now we’re rewarded with that fresh feeling. Each little win gives you a boost of dopamine (a neurotransmitter that plays a role in how we feel pleasure).


When we first start to create a habit you will see the formation of neuron networks. At first these connections are fairly weak, meaning that they’re not well-formed “habit-like” pathways yet. After several weeks of consistency the connections will get thicker and stronger.


Why does our brain do this?


Our brains require approximately 20% of our daily energy needs, therefore the brain makes important behaviours cost as little energy as possible. With thicker, stronger connections there is less of an energy requirement to perform the behaviours and activate the neurons.


Whatever you do over and over again, the brain decides is important.


This is important to think about. It doesn’t matter if it’s a habit or action that’s beneficial to us. Whenever the brain sees something is repeated, and there is also a dopamine release, it decides it’s important.


Choose habits that make your nervous system and your brain your ally!


How? Read Healthy Habits in Lockdown.


But is is that simple??


People will quote the number of days it takes to make or break a habit - 23? 66? - to name a few. But the research this is based on showed such a huge range of days it took for people to create habits as simple as drinking a glass of water after breakfast (for some this took over 200 days!).


So while it's wonderful to set goals for habit change, don't be too hard on yourself. It takes work! Remember that as well as setting the goal, we should think about how we can give ourselves the best chance of success. This comes in the form of "systems" or plans we put in place to help steer us towards where we want to be headed.


Here are a few things to think about...


Be aware.


We need to be aware of what we’re doing in order to realise the habits we have.


Write down your habits as you go through the day. What do you do when you first wake up? What are your go-to foods for across the day? Do you stop for lunch? Are you on your phone? What do you do in the few hours before bed?


When you’ve done this for a few days, look over each habit and decide if they’re serving you well, or if there’s something else that would be more beneficial or something you’d prefer to fill your time with.


Be intentional.


Does your day or week look the way you want it to?


Is there something you would like to change?


If so, write it down. Make yourself accountable. If you want to start the day reading a chapter of your book rather than scrolling through your phone then write it down on a notepad next to your bed. Use another device for your morning alarm. Turn your wifi off before you go to sleep and place your phone out of reach. Place your book next to your bed.


If you want to exercise. Lay out your clothes the night before. Write down your exercise intentions.


Start small.


It will take longer, but it will form better and longer-lasting habits. It’ll be slow, but you’re more likely to keep moving forward.


Choose small achievable goals.


If you’re starting from no exercise. Don’t plan to exercise everyday. Write down a plan of exercising 10 minutes three times a week. If you do a little more, that’s a bonus.


Be consistent. Choose realistic goals. Keep doing it. Build those brain connections and habits!


If you feel like you'd like some support or if you have any questions, feel free to get in touch



References:


TED Talk: The Science of Habits. Marco Badwal. Accessed January 2021.

National Institutes of Health: accessed January 2021.

BMJ: Healthy habits in middle age linked to longer life free from disease. Accessed February 2021.


Photo 1: Prophsee Journals on Unsplash

Habits.

Photo 2: Lala Azizli on Unsplash