We know and experience the long term benefits of positive habits, but what about those instant feel good ones that have less favourable outcomes? The process of building, forming and maintaining positive habits is sometimes quite difficult, particularly for students who are constantly learning and growing. Yet, often the proximal rewards (the beautiful taste of that third scoop of ice cream) are stronger than the distal benefits (healthy weight and lifestyle). Carpe diem, I hear you cry! Well, we certainly can benefit from living in the moment, but there is also something to be said about creating habits that will sustain our longer term wellbeing.
Habit formation can be defined as the process in which behaviours become automatic. The automaticity of behaviours depends on cue-behaviour associations stored in memory. When encountering a certain context cue (e.g. coming home after school), associated behaviours are triggered. The behaviour (e.g. completing homework tasks for the day) can contribute to a potential reward for engaging in the behaviour (e.g. sense of achievement, doing well in a subject or parental praise) which increases the desire to engage in the behaviour when encountering the cue again. Once habits are formed, context cues prompt automatic, unconscious activation of the behaviour - the habitual response, irrespective of the presence of rewards (Orbell & Verplanken, 2020).
So how long does it take to form a habit? Contrary to what many believe, it has been found that individuals on average take 66 days to reach the asymptote of automaticity, however there is a varied range of 18-254 days (Lally & Gardener, 2013). In order for a habit to be formed, context-dependent repetition must be engaged to facilitate the development of automaticity (Lally & Gardener, 2013). The use of rewards for cue-behaviour associations can increase the likelihood of future engagement in the behaviour. Extrinsic and tangible rewards, and intrinsic rewards, have been shown to improve the automaticity of behaviours. However, a habit is formed once the reward is no longer the goal of the behaviour (Lally & Gardener, 2013).
So how can you break those unwanted habits that get in the way of you reaching your long-term goals? Many have proposed that in order to extinguish an unwanted habit, the removal of cues within the environment that illicit the unwanted behaviour can be effective (Wood et al., 2005). For example, if you want to stop phone use before bed you could remove the phone charger (cue) from your room. Additionally, pairing the situational cue with an alternative behavioural response can also be effective (Lally & Gardener, 2013). For example, you could leave a journal, art pad or a book (cue) beside your bed.
- Repeat, repeat, repeat the behaviour in the presence of a cue. E.g. Leave running shoes/ear pods by the front door to prompt going for a walk/run after school, leaving the phone charger outside the bedroom.
- Think about what you can use as an extrinsic and intrinsic reward for performing the behaviour after a cue. E.g. Watching a Netflix series or an enjoyable shared activity with family or friends after doing homework, listening to a podcast or favourite music while running/walking
- Remove cues that elicit unwanted habits that you want to break (i.e. remove easy access poor nutritional snacks/charger in bedroom) and if you are in the presence of these cues replace them with alternative behaviours (have a water bottle to hand, or fruit or vegetable snacks easily accessible).
- Visualise the benefits
Lally, P., & Gardner, B. (2013). Promoting habit formation. Health Psychology Review, 7(Suppl 1), S137–S158. https://doi.org/10.1080/17437199.2011.603640
Orbell, S., & Verplanken, B. (2020). Changing Behavior Using Habit Theory. In M. Hagger, L. Cameron, K. Hamilton, N. Hankonen, & T. Lintunen (Eds.), The Handbook of Behavior Change (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology, pp. 178-192). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781108677318.013
Wood, W., Tam, L., & Witt, M. G. (2005). Changing circumstances, disrupting habits. Journal of personality and social psychology, 88(6), 918–933. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.118