We all have habits. Some are good, like knowing which direction to turn as you drive to your Pilates class without having to think about it. Others, such as turning to comfort food when you’re feeling sad, or biting your nails in times of stress, might be leading us astray. Let us introduce you to a new way of thinking about and addressing habits and some strategies to both create new and unravel old habits.
Habit: A stable behavior formed by the repetition of the same pattern over time.
Habits are comprised of 2 parts:
Let's look at this idea in practice...
You wake up in the morning feeling tired. The way you feel is your antecedent or cue to engage in a behavior.
You drink some coffee. This is the behavior or habit.
You now feel alert and ready for the day. The new feeling replacing your tiredness is the consequence of engaging in your habit.
Habits are formed when the cue and the behavior are paired together often enough.
This pairing of trigger and response often becomes so automatic we don't even notice it. Think about driving to a place you go frequently. Do you have to make an effort to remember which roads to take, or do you sometimes find yourself approaching your destination with little memory of your drive to get there?
That's because nearly 43% of all our daily actions are habitual, or done completely on autopilot.
So how can we use this understanding to create desired habits and kick unhelpful ones to the curb?
Well, the first thing to note is that putting a complete halt to a habit is very difficult. A study on smokers who attempted to quit “cold turkey” found that just 95% were able to kick their habit for longer than six months. Instead, using the techniques of replacing and shaping can transition you to healthier habits.
Replacing a Habit
Let’s face it, if you’ve encountered a cue enough times to form a habit around it, that trigger isn’t going away anytime soon. So, instead of trying to stop responding to a cue altogether, replace your response with a better behavior.
Consider a behavior you’d like to change. What’s its cue?
Feeling lonely → Eating sugary foods → Guilt Antecedent Behavior Consequence
What are alternative solutions to satisfy this trigger?
You could: call a friend, do something you enjoy, exercise, or volunteer to be around others
By choosing a replacement behavior for a common cue, you can create a new habit with a positive consequence!
Feeling lonely → Call a friend → Feeling better Antecedent Behavior Consequence
Shaping a New Habit
The idea of shaping a habit is a “step-wise” approach where the habit change or introduction happens gradually over time by taking small steps toward the goal until it’s reached. This is an ideal strategy for engaging in a new behavior that isn’t yet being stimulated by a cue.
Say you want to wake up early enough to exercise and journal before getting ready for your day.
You might begin by adjusting your morning alarm just 5 minutes earlier than usual for a few days (or more or less, as always, listen to your body!) and use that time to do some stretches. Once that "autopilot" feeling that is characteristic of habitual behavior starts to kick in, add another 5 minutes, using your extra time to stretch and journal, continuing along this slow and steady path of adding 5 minutes until you have ample time for each activity in the morning.
While everyone’s timeline to make or break habits is different, it is important to remember that it won’t happen overnight for anyone. Studies range from 21 days to 6 months for new behaviors to be adopted routinely, so keep working at it!