You probably have daily habits that you don’t think much about, like having a cup of coffee in the morning or brushing your teeth before bed. Some habits set us up for success and greatly improve our quality of life. Others may not serve our mental health or hold us back from achieving our goals.
If you’ve ever tried to break a habit, you know that it’s sometimes easier said than done! But why are they so hard to break? Habits are often based on feelings of pleasure or reward. When you engage in a behaviour that feels good, your brain releases dopamine, also known as the “happy hormone.” This dopamine hit makes us want to keep performing the pleasurable habit, even if we know that it doesn’t serve us. This explains why so many people have a hard time kicking habits that provide a temporary reward but have long-term consequences, such as smoking.
Forming new habits
Ideally, we want to implement habits we feel good about into our day to day lives and get to a point where we do them automatically. But how long does this take exactly? Studies show that you must repeat a behaviour for an average of 66 days for it to become automatic, and it takes between 18 and 254 days to form a new habit.
Psychologist Benjamin Gardner points out that we perform habits because of impulse rather than intentional thought. In contrast, routines are actions that you consciously think about before you do them. For example, cleaning your home once a week or journaling daily might be something that you do intentionally because it serves your wellbeing. Over time, you can turn routines into habits by repeating them regularly.
To form habits that you feel good about and break ones that don’t serve you, a great place to start is to identify and avoid your triggers. Ask yourself: is there anything in your environment that usually triggers your impulse to perform the habit? You might notice that you feel more tempted to do it when you’re around certain people or in a certain location. Noticing these cues and steering clear of them can help you break a habit. Another easy tip is to replace your habit with a new one that serves your wellbeing.
Let’s use an example to put these steps into practice. Imagine that you have a habit of checking your phone before bedtime every night. You want to stop this habit because you find it disrupts your sleep. One way to get rid of the temptation is to keep your phone outside of your bedroom at night, rather than on your bedside table within arm’s reach. You’ll be less likely to start answering texts or scrolling on social media if you don’t have easy access to it! To replace this habit, you could start reading a book or journaling before bed. These are both alternative ways to wind down and get your mind off things before you go to sleep.
You can prioritize your new habit by creating reminders for yourself. Set a reminder on your phone or write it down on your to-do list each day. This will help you implement the habit into your schedule, and eventually turn it into an automatic routine. Remember that patience is key for habit formation. Have compassion for yourself – breaking habits that don’t serve us and forming new ones is challenging! Don’t feel pressure to be successful right away. Slipping back into an old habit every once in a while is a normal part of the process. When this happens, it’s helpful to reflect on what caused the setback and focus on what you can do to make it easier for you to stick to your new habit in the future.