Do you drive the same route to work each morning, have a coffee as soon as you arrive at the office and start the day sifting through your inbox?
Chances are you even wash yourself in the same order in the shower and apply your makeup just as you did the previous day. No wonder they call it a morning routine.
We are creatures of habit – but only if we’re rewarded with something we perceive as positive. No doubt you’ve tried the various routes to work and stick with the one you think is fastest, just as checking your emails as soon as you get to the office seems to be the quickest way to refine the day’s to-do list.
“Our bodies exhibit a preference for habits because of efficiency,” says health psychologist Dr Helen Lindner from the Australian Psychological Society. “If we had to think about everything we did we’d be exhausted.”
In the beginning
There was a time when we were willing to experiment by taking the freeway rather than the back streets, or applying lipstick before mascara. So how does carefully considered behaviour – what psychologists call ‘goal directed actions’ – become habit, something we do without thinking?
“The best data suggests there are two parallel systems – one circuit in the brain that controls these goal directed or voluntary behaviours and a second system that controls the habit,” says psychologist Dr Laura Corbit from the University of Sydney.
“The most obvious way to move from one to the other is the length of training, practice or experience executing a particular behaviour. You don’t form a habit overnight; you form a habit relating to something you’ve done over and over again.”
A groundbreaking study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology found the average time taken for a new health-related behaviour to become automatic was 66 days. The behaviours ranged from going for a 15-minute run before dinner to eating a piece of fruit with lunch and doing 50 sit-ups after a morning coffee.
Unsurprisingly, early repetitions of the behaviour yielded the highest conversion rates, but missing a day here and there didn’t have a negative impact on whether the behaviour became habit. So missing a gym session every so often is unlikely to dent your fitness mojo.
Dr Lindner advocates the ‘100 minutes’ rule, where practising an activity correctly (not counting the time it takes to get it right) for this length of time cements it in your brain.
“If we practise things for 100 minutes they tend to lock in. So if we practise driving a manual car and get in right, then do it right for 100 minutes, it’ll be there for life. So we can drive an automatic car for years, get back into a manual car and within a few minutes our coordination comes back.
What women want
There is evidence to suggest that as a habit increases in strength, our intentions have less influence. So while we may want to try something different, our brains are sneakily pulling us back to the status quo because it’s easier and more efficient.
Habit strength is also thought to increase as a result of positive experiences, mainly because the behaviour becomes more strongly associated with the initial goal. Conversely, dissatisfaction weakens the link between behaviour and goal.
Research conducted by the McGovern Institute for Brain Research in the US found habit formation to be an innate ability fine-tuned by experience – specifically, the perceived costs and rewards of our choices. The researchers believe reinforcement learning – where we’re encouraged to repeat behaviour because it generates a positive outcome – is a major player in habit formation.
But there’s more to it than simply repeating something you like over and over – your actions exist in a constantly changing environment that has a significant impact on your actions. It’s the nurture to your brain’s nature.
“We eat to survive, which is a positive habit, but the types of food we eat and overeating we engage in can be habits because of availability of stress, or it could be because we’re happy – we eat certain things at parties and overeat at certain times of the year,” Dr Lindner says. “A habit is more complex than something we do on a regular basis, and it can be stimulated by something specific.”
So if you always go for a run straight after arriving home from work, the goal (running) becomes intrinsically linked with the situation (after work).
“As behaviours are repeated in a consistent context, there is an increase in the link between the context and the action,” says registered psychologist Amanda Nassif. “This in turn increases the automaticity of the behaviour in that context.”
How to make a change
1. Identify a positive habit you would like to adopt, and a negative habit you’d like to break.
2. Recognise the context within which you perform the negative habit.
3. Just as you’re about to perform the negative habit, consciously think about the positive habit you’d like to adopt.
4. Replace your negative behaviour with the new positive behaviour.
5. Repeat until the new behaviour becomes automatic (about two months).
The trick is to make positive behaviour you enjoy automatic – something you do without thinking – and negative behaviour a reasoned response – something you think about carefully before doing.
“Habits are adaptive because they’re efficient and only when the habit is something that we want to change does it become problematic,” Dr Corbit says. “The brain has evolved to establish habits because usually they’re helpful.
“There’s usually something we can do to reactivate the goal directed system. It hasn’t been replaced, it’s not that it’s not there, it’s just that the habit system seems to be more dominant.”
A study published in the journal of Health Education Research found exercise habits are more likely to be established when they can be incorporated into existing lifestyles, and are an activity that we enjoy. The researchers recommend walking and cycling as simple additions to a daily routine, as they’re suitable for all fitness levels and can be done solo.
Psychological strategies like pairing are a clever way to create new associations in the brain and make the most of our preference for mental efficiency.
“I train people into a relaxation response, so you feel relaxed and have a visualisation that goes with it – for example, the tide coming in and out,” Dr Lindner says. “Visualise it while you’re feeling relaxed. When you’re feeling anxious all you need to do is visualise the tide coming in and out and a part of the brain says to the automatic nervous system, ‘we’re seeing the waves, calm down, we should be relaxed’. You don’t need medication or conscious effort.”
Dr Corbit says it’s important to consider your actions and resist the lazy pull of old habits: “Habits are things we do without thinking, so any intervention that’s going to increase your awareness of doing something that you’re trying to change is good. Nail biting is something scientists have studied; they recommend putting bad tasting substances on people’s fingers. It’s a way of bringing awareness to that behaviour that you’re trying to change and put the brakes on, make it less automatic.”
Nassif agrees that thinking before you act is a great way to form positive, healthy habits:“I always ask patients before they do anything to stop and think and ask themselves, ‘is this in my best interest?’ For example, if you feel like eating mud cake ask yourself if this action is in your best interest. In this way people learn how to control their feelings through strengthening their intelligence. They act in a way that is in their best interest and positive habits start to form.”
Get more health advice by following us on Twitter and don’t forget to share your experiences on our Facebook page!