At the risk of sounding cliché, we are creatures of habit. Physically, our bodies strive for homeostasis. Mentally, we like routines and processes that are done without much thought. In habits we find comfort, normalcy and familiarity. The problem is when our normal and familiar habits aren’t always healthy.
The 21 Day Myth
The adage is that it takes 21 days to create a habit. However, newer research has proven that theory wrong and it takes about three times that amount of time create a new habit. Research published in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that it takes a person 66 days to create a new habit. In fact, it can take up to eight months for some people. So, throw out that notion that in three weeks you’ll be able to create new habits.
That’s a lot of time when the habit you are trying to break is something to which you’ve become physically, emotionally and/or mentally attached (smoking, drinking, over eating, stress, etc.).
As a health coach, I work with clients on behavior modification strategies with nutrition and fitness to support their new healthy goals. Every day I speak to people who are so entrenched in their habits that they can’t envision a way out.
If you are nodding your head in agreement, let’s dig into why it’s so difficult to get out of unhealthy habits and create new, sustainable behaviors.
What’s in a Habit?
First, we need to define a habit. It’s not the occasional indulgent dinner or afternoon latte and cookie. A habit is a regular tendency or practice that is difficult to stop. An obvious example of a habit is smoking a cigarette after each meal. It’s something your brain is wired to do, and your body expects, and to stop it would result in negative physical symptoms.
Now that we know what a habit is, it’s important to be aware of when, where and how we exhibit habits and what the triggers are that set them into motion. For example, if you head to the vending machine at work every day at 2 p.m. for a candy bar because you need a little “pick me up,” what are the triggers? Are you tired? Is it stress that leaves you feeling depleted by mid-afternoon? Take note of what prompts you to buy that candy bar. When you know what sets that habit into action, you’ll be able to start changing it.
Next, identify the “reward” in your current behavior? What do you feel when you eat that candy bar? Do you feel comfort, energy, relaxation? Make note of how you feel after you’ve indulged in your habit. That will be important information when you are working reprogram your brain to get that same feeling from a different habit.
The Road to New, Healthy Habits
Now that you know what triggers your unhealthy habit and how you feel when you give into that behavior, you can create a plan to create new healthy routines. Here are a few tips to get you started.
- Identify a good habit that will satisfy that craving/need. If you truly feel depleted around 2 p.m. every day, your body may need a little jumpstart. You can do that without eating a candy bar every afternoon. Energy comes from lots of sources. Replace the candy bar with a walk, a healthier sweet snack or a cup of green tea with a few drops of honey. Start looking for a replacement that can be done as easily as buying a candy bar at the same time, so you aren’t forcing yourself to just ignore the urge and keep working.
- Start with a gradual change. Forget what the research says…21 days, 66 days, whatever. If you make one small change every day or every week, you’ll start to see the results in bigger ways. Maybe that means having a candy bar three days instead of five for the first week. Or, having half of it each day. Step down gradually to increase the chance of long-term success.
- If it ain’t broke…don’t change it. When it comes to starting new, healthy habits, rely on what’s worked before. Think about a time when you’ve been successful at starting a good habit or routine (maybe it’s exercising or getting up earlier). What steps did you take to build that habit? How did you hold yourself accountable? What reminders and rewards did you use? Recall what’s worked and repeat that process!
- Be comfortable with failure. Expect to stumble and be ready with restart strategies. We all fail when we are trying to start or stop something our bodies and minds are resistant to. Be prepared for the missteps and recover quickly. When end up at the vending machine with the candy bar, it doesn’t mean you should give up. Acknowledge what went wrong (lack of preparedness, increased stress, etc.), enjoy the indulgence and start fresh as soon as possible.
Habits are difficult to break when our minds and bodies rely on them for relief of stress, fatigue or other problem. But it is possible to break poor habits and start new, healthy ones with a plan, some patience and accountability. Need some help getting started with creating new health, wellness or lifestyle changes, set up a free wellness chat and let’s discuss.
Have a healthy, happy week!