Forming a new habit

In our training sessions we are often asked “How long does it take to make a habit and  how long does it take to undo one?” The 21 day rule for developing a new habit is often mentioned.  However no one is entirely sure of its source and whether it is correct or not.

Neuroscience has shown that integrative brain neurons start creating circuits back to the amygdala after about thirty days of doing something different.

As you repeat the action specific neuronal networks in the brain are activated. These networks are then coated in a myelin sheath (myelin is the brain’s insulating substance) allowing the connection to run smoother and faster. In fact, after repeated practice of a behaviour the nerves become heavily insulated and can run up to one hundred times faster than when they are first created.

While the neurons start connecting quickly the actual duration of habit formation is likely to differ depending on who you are and what you are trying to do. However, if you repeat a behaviour often enough, those synaptic pathways are going to develop and run more automatically, sooner. Neuroscinece has found the human brain to be a very adaptive organ, that is, it has  great neuroplasticity.

What about breaking a habit?

Once developed, habits also take time to break.  In fact breaking a habit is often more complicated than creating one. Research has shown that while parts of those worn-in pathways can weaken without use, they never fully retreat. In some instances old habits can be reactivated with only the slightest cue, for example when stress cues you reach for the chocolate.

The most helpful thing you can do is to form a new, parallel behaviour, like exercising when you feel stress, rather than indulge the old habit, which triggers “chocolate”. Studies have indicated that people are twenty-five times more successful if they try to cultivate a new habit rather than just resist the old one.

6 ways to increase your chances of successfully creating a new helpful habit quickly:

  • Adding a new behaviour rather than trying to stop the old one.. So instead of “I’m going to stop eating chocolate.” try “I’m going to eat more vegetables.”
  • Repeating the behaviour as often as you can. The more a behaviour is repeated, the more likely it is that it will become automatic and those neurones will become well coated.
  • Tackling one habit at a time. Instead of “I’m going to quit eating junk food, start exercising, and going to bed early” start with “I’m going to add more vegetables to my meals.”
  • Setting realistic goals.  Rather than saying “I will exercise,” say, “I will start walking 30 minutes twice a week, on Monday and Thursday.”
  • Planning  how you are going to achieve the goals. So, “I will wake up at 6 am, so I can walk before work on Mondays and Thursdays.”
  • Setting up a cue to prompt the behaviour. For example, leave your gym shoes by the bed. This will cue you to exercise when that 6 am alarm goes off.

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