Habits: Myths and How to Change Them
May, 1, 2014
Whenever I tell people I’m a personal trainer, the most common (and logical) questions I get are about what exercises they should be doing to lose weight or their stomach. Despite what I know about health and fitness, I usually don’t like answering these questions. Not because I don’t want to help people, but instead because their issue isn’t “What they should be doing,” but instead an issue of “How to best make lifestyle changes.” Most people know “what to do,” and really are asking for a miracle or secret so that they don’t actually have to do what they know they need to do.
The truth is, I am literally in the process of helping change people’s lives and a question like that doesn’t respect the inherent changes needed to implement the “what to do” things. The more and better I can get people to change their habits (change their lives), the better their results. The better their results, the better it is for everyone involved. And when I say “everyone” I not only mean me and my clients, but also all of the lives that my clients’ lives influence. Often times when one of my clients undergoes a change, so do their friends and family, whether directly or indirectly.
For example, the other day I received an email from a client who I haven’t trained in nearly two years. In the email, she described how she took what she had learned through working out and eating right with me and applied it with some co-workers. Overall, she’s helped her co-workers lose more weight and inches than they have in the past 10 years of working out on their own. That is “changing people’s lives” in action, but in order for that to happen, there has to be an initial change in habits.
Habits are often misunderstood and there are a lot of myths surrounding habits. In this article, I will be discussing some of those myths and what you can expect when changing habits. We all know that when it comes to losing weight and keeping it off, it’s all about “lifestyle changes.” By the end of this article, you should have a better idea as to how-to make those lifestyle changes a bit easier.
5 Characteristics of Habits
1 – They are largely subconscious – In other words, we only have a vague recollection of doing them. This may sound like a disadvantage, but imagine driving to work with all of the mental power needed the first time you drove a car. You would be worn out by the time you got to work. Instead, the subconscious nature of habits allows you to preserve mental power for anything else you might need it for…while still getting you to work.
Obviously this acts like a double-edged sword when you’re trying to change a bad habit, but overall this helps preserve mental power. Preservation of mental power then helps to increase the odds of having self-control for when you need it.
2 – They are largely emotionless – This correlates with the first characteristic, but has more to do with how you feel. For example, if listening to music is a habit and a new song comes on that you like, you might get excited. But if it’s been on the radio multiple times per day for weeks on end, it is extremely rare that you will get excited about the song.
This also has advantages, such as allowing for you to feel in control of your life. Habits have a “relaxing” nature to them, that don’t’ stir up strong emotions, allowing you to find solace in the habitual nature of your day. If you had to get amped up to do a habit, it would again, wear you out.
3 – They are spurred on by context and environment. If you drive to work the same way every morning and you’re in the car on the same highway, then you might start driving to work, although you’re supposed to stop at the store before work. Context and environment are the cues that spur on habits. As such, one of the easiest ways to change a habit is to change your environment and set yourself up for success.
Here’s the thing though, “context” can be spurred on by individuals also. Some people might incite a feeling of over-indulgence (do you always eat more around certain people?), while another might incite other unsavory habits (you never complain, except around…..).
4 – They are defined by how automatically we take a certain action, not how frequently we do them
For example, you may not eat desserts very often, but if every time you go to Cheesecake Factory you eat a dessert, then that’s a habit for you. This could be true even if you only eat there 2 or 3 times a year. This can be expanded a 1,000 different ways, but frequency is only important in making habits. Once that habit is formed though, frequency counts a lot less and instead, environmental cues play a much larger role.
5 – They take long to make and even longer to break
One of the most perpetual myths with habits is that it takes 21 days to make or break a habit. This seems like a plausible time frame as it seems long enough to be believable, but not so long that it’s demoralizing. The research though, just doesn’t support that time frame.
In 2010, a study conducted by Phillippa Lally attempted to answer the question of, “How long does it take to make a habit?” During the study, 96 participants chose an eating, drinking or activity behavior that they wanted to start and could be repeated daily, but weren’t currently doing. Some examples included drinking water after breakfast, jogging for 15 minutes before dinner and eating a piece of fruit at lunch. Overall, 27 chose an eating behavior, 31 a drinking behavior (mostly water), 34 an exercise behavior and 4 another behavior (ex. Meditation).
Overall, this study showed 5 interesting findings:
A – Of the 96 initial participants, only 62 started to make changes to their habits. That means, one-third of people showed no change to their behaviors or habits after 12 weeks. That’s like one-third of your graduating class, not graduating.
B – Of the remaining 62 individuals, only 39 could fit into the final analysis of “How long it takes to make a habit.” Thirty-nine out of ninety-six (39 out of 96) participants could say to have increased their habits, despite the habits not being very difficult. This is like 39 people in your graduating class going to college.
C –The more often the person performed the behavior, the more likely they were to have that behavior become habitual. This is the one thing that stood out as to what influenced habit formation over the 12 weeks. To form a habit, frequency, or how often you do a behavior, is important.
D – The average time to form a habit was 66 days. If you remember my post on genetics and weight loss though, you recognize that “averages” do not account for individual differences. The individual differences ranged from 18 to 284 days to make the habits. The easiest habit to take on was drinking water with the eating and exercise behaviors taking substantially longer to make habitual.
E – Missing one day was not fatal to the formation of the habit, but missing a week pretty much was. Here’s a quote from the study: “…missing one opportunity does not preclude habit formation, but missing a week’s worth of opportunities reduces the likelihood of future performance and hinders habit acquisition.”
In other words, don’t stress about missing one day, but pick yourself back up and get started as soon as possible. Don’t tell yourself, “I’ll start next week.” Start today or tomorrow. Starting next week hinders the habit formation process.
These were relatively easy habits and still more than half of the people didn’t form habits. The participants who made their behaviors more habitual, took more than 2 months on average to do so. So if you were planning on totally changing your life and not having to think about it after 3 weeks, you might be setting yourself up for a disappointment.
5 Simple Ways to Change Habits
Now that you have the background information on habits, the question becomes, “How can I use this information to make lifestyle changes?” Here are 5 strategies that you can start to implement today to make healthy lifestyle changes.
2 – Know that you won’t be perfect. Accept this reality and pick yourself up as quickly as possible. Don’t wait until “next week” to get started.
3 – Recognize how your environment (and people) influence your habits. Notice how automatically you fall into habitual patterns of behavior and Set Yourself Up For Success.
4 – Pick one or two inter-related habits and stick to them. Make Continual Progress with the things that can have the largest influence on your life.
5 – Make habits that you want to change, more conscious. This doesn’t always work with every habit, but for mild to moderate habits, this can be highly effective in changing your behavior. The easiest way to do this is to change your environment. For example, if you overeat at night, move your late-night snacks so that they’re hard to get to. This will cause you to have to think about where they are and in that moment of thinking you have another chance to make a different choice. The more often you can make habitual behaviors conscious, the better your odds of making or sticking to a change you want to make.
If you have any questions or comments, please leave a comment below.
Most of the Information in this article can be gleaned from these two resources:
Making Habits, Breaking Habits by Jeremy Dean
How Habits are Formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world
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