How the mind makes and leaves Habit, how long does it take to become a habit…

The Science Of Habit Formation And Change: Had you made a resolution to give up one of your bad habits on the new year, but if you could not do so then do not worry, this did not happen only with you. In fact, research shows that up to 40 percent of our everyday habits are habits that are part of our automatic routines and that we do without thinking. But how are these habits formed and why are they so difficult to break?

Habits can be compared to the river bed. A well established river has a deep bed and the water is likely to flow continuously in a definite direction. Our habits are also like this. The bed of a new river is shallow, so the flow of water is not well defined – its course may be varied and less predictable. This can be compared to new habits.

Just like the water in a river bed, habits help our behavior to ‘flow’ along a predictable path. But what we’re really talking about here is learning and forgetting.

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What happens in the brain when we form a habit? (The Science of Habit Formation and Change)

– During the early stages of habit formation, the decision parts of your brain (the pre-frontal cortices) are activated, and the action has to be deliberate. When a new routine is introduced, brain circuits – also called neural networks – are activated.

– The more often you repeat a new action, the stronger and more efficient these neural networks become. This reorganization and strengthening of connections between neurons is called neuroplasticity, and in the case of habit formation – long-term potentiation.

Every time you perform a new action while trying to form a habit, you brain needs tiny signals or triggers to activate a similar network of cells.

Habits become stronger over time as we build associations with new habits and gain something from them – for example, not being lazy to wake up in the morning makes it easier to get to work on time, Hence you feel the benefits of your new habit.

Later, as habits become stronger, the decision parts of the brain no longer need to kick in to initiate action. The habit is now activated in memory and is considered automatic: neural circuits can perform the habit without conscious thought. In other words, you no longer need to choose to perform the action.

How long does it take to become a habit?

Lifestyle advice from popular media and social media influencers often suggests that it takes 21 days to form or break a habit – an idea originally presented in the 1960s. This is generally considered an oversimplification, although empirical evidence is surprisingly sparse.

A seminal study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology is often cited as finding that habits form between 18 and 254 days, with an average of about 66 days.

In that study, 96 people were asked to choose a new health habit and practice it daily for 84 days. Of the original 96 participants, 39 (41 percent) successfully formed the habit by the end of the study period. The level of success in forming a habit, and the amount of time it takes to form a habit, seem to vary depending on the type of goal.

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For example, goals related to drinking a glass of water per day are more likely to be successful, and accomplished faster without conscious thought, than goals related to eating fruit or exercising. In addition, time of day appears to be important, with habits formed earlier in the day becoming automatic more quickly than habits formed later in the day (for example, eating a piece of fruit with lunch vs. walking in the evening, and walking after breakfast versus walking after dinner).

The study was very small, so these findings are not definitive. However, he suggests that if you haven’t been able to form a new habit in just 21 days, don’t worry – there’s still hope!

Finding meaning in a new habit is important. Some studies have reported strong findings that the belief that you can change a habit is also important. Along with your commitment to the practice, it is important to believe in change and be aware of its potential.

(Ashley Elizabeth Smith, Senior Lecturer, University of South Australia, Carol Maher, Professor, University of South Australia and Susan Hillier, Professor, University of South Australia)

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