Habits: The good, the bad, and how to use habits to your advantage.

Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD

Habit: (1) A settled tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up. (2) An automatic reaction to a specific situation.

We all have habits, and practice them every day. Some habits we are quite aware of, while others may have gotten to the point of being so automatic that we don’t even think about them. We have good habits, we have bad habits. We have habits we want to change or improve. And with the start of the new year, many people seek to push the re-set button and focus on resolutions that are often about changing habits.

To help understand how habits affect your daily life, take a moment to consider your routine each day. How many of the things you do come automatically, without you having to think much about it? For many people, there may be a standard morning routine to start the day. This could include coffee, showers, breakfast, getting kids ready for school, driving to work, etc. With a regular morning routine, little thought needs to go into the steps and as a result the routine is not very difficult. But, if someone were to tell you to change one or more elements of this routine, you would have to slow down and think about what you were doing, and become more consciously aware of each step.

The nice thing about habits is that once you develop a set of good habits, you can be very productive without having to think too hard about it. It is interesting to note that while good habits do not take a lot of cognitive effort, is does not mean that engaging in positive habits is especially easy. Take working out as an example. If you have not been working out and you start to focus on it, initially it takes a lot of cognitive effort – talking yourself into it, pushing yourself to do it, finding the time to do it. But if you start working out every day at a certain time, it becomes a habit so that each day at that time you automatically mentally prepare yourself for that activity. This does not make the actual workout easier per se, but it does take the decision and planning out of the equation.

There has been a lot of research on habits, including behavioral research, cognitive research, and neurological research. There has been speculation about how long it takes to break bad habits or develop good habits. One common idea is the 21-days to change a habit, which is based on work done by the plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz in the 1960s about how people adjusted following plastic surgery. However, this was not inclusive of the multitude of habits and behaviors that people generally seek to change. More recent research has identified that habits can take anywhere from 18 – 254 days to acquire, given a wide variety of habits people were seeking to adopt. How long it takes to change a bad habit, or acquire a new habit, will depend on the person and the circumstances.

Habits as automatic behaviors. Habits by definition are routine and automatic. A simple habit, such as biting one’s nails, may occur automatically without the person even thinking about it. A more complex habit, such a working out, may take a little more focus, but if it is part of a daily routine it becomes habitual. Part of changing habits is considering what triggers the habit. For nail-biting, it may be stress or boredom. For working out, it may be the time of day. To stop nail-biting, one needs to heighten awareness of stress or boredom triggers, then develop a better habit to use (a fidget item for example), and practice the new habit until it becomes automatic. For something like working out, it will be more about establishing a habitual routine, so that stopping at the gym after work, or starting your day with a run, becomes the routine and therefore reinforces that habit.

Looking out to the new year and new possibilities for your own habits and routines, consider what you want to change. Do you have one bad habit you would like to eliminate? Is there a new habit you would like to acquire? Over the next few weeks I will go over some tips for changing habits in several areas:

  1. Break one bad habit.
  2. Develop one new social/interpersonal habit.
  3. Develop one new positive health habit.

Stay tuned for upcoming weekly tips!

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