Whether it's brushing your teeth every morning, putting your seat belt on as soon as you get in the car or looking both directions before crossing the street, we often don't think twice about our habits. That's actually sort of the point of them. But, whether we recognize our habits or not, we all have them.
Habits are meant to be automatic — the behaviors that you don't really need to think about or consider each and every time. In fact, we're usually thinking or doing something else entirely while these autopilot behaviors run in the background.
There are bad habits, though — with varying degrees of harmfulness. Biting your nails when you don't even realize you're stressed or staring at your phone for an hour before bed every night are habits that can affect your health, albeit usually in a minor way. Reaching for a cigarette as soon as you clock out of work every day, on the other hand...well, that's always an unhealthy one.
And now that we've brought your habits (good as well as bad) into the limelight, you might be curious as to how you form habits, why you even have them in the first place and how to break a habit that's unhealthy.
How are habits formed?
At its simplest, the way we form habits is actually pretty...well...simple. We learn them!
But what makes a certain learned behavior stick — to the point where it actually becomes habitual — is where things can get a little more complicated.
There's plenty of research around habit formation, and what most experts agree upon is that forming a habit requires:
- A consistent cue (same thing, same time, same place)
- A simple behavior (typically one that's deemed useful)
- A reward (which can be inherent or attached to the behavior by you)
- Many repetitions of the formula above
For instance, every time you get into your car, you put your seat belt on. The consistent cues are your car and your seat belt. The simple behavior is buckling up. And the reward is you're safety while driving (in addition to being an obedient, law-abiding citizen, of course).
The last piece of the habit loop is time. The cue, behavior and reward must all be consistently repeated for however long it takes to make the behavior habitual.
The length of time it takes to form a habit varies by person, as well as the behavior itself. But, on average, it takes about two months for a person to form a new habit — although it can range anywhere from 2.5 to 36 weeks.
Why are habits important?
Research from behavioral experts estimates that more than 40% of our everyday behaviors are habitual. This means that, in short, we rely on our habits a lot.
The reason for this is fairly straightforward. Turning everyday behaviors into habits frees up our brain to think through the ever-changing situations and challenges we're facing — whether that's solving a problem at work or deciding what to eat for dinner.
Take again, for instance, the seat belt example. Every time you get in your car you don't actually need to think through whether or not you need to put your seat belt on. Your brain already knows the answer is yes — every. single. time. Turning this simple action that's always paired with both a cue and reward into a habitual behavior allows your brain to focus on the other things that actually require decision-making and concentration — like which route is best or whether or not you need to stop for gas.
Ultimately, we're creatures of habit because it's an efficient way to live.
Can habits really be broken?
Just as you can develop healthy habits, like having a glass of water with every meal, you can form some bad ones, too. The good news is that these bad habits can be replaced with better ones — with some purposeful, consistent effort.
Because habits are essentially background behaviors, breaking one starts with recognizing the bad habit even exists in the first place.
Once you've recognized an unhealthy habit, experts say that breaking it is most successful if you can interrupt the cue associated with the habit. This is why some believe the best time to begin your efforts to ditch an unhealthy habit for a healthier one is when you're on vacation or if you've just moved to a new home or city. More simply, interrupting the cue could even be as easy as moving junk food out of sight.
After the cue that triggers a habit is successfully uprooted, you have a window of opportunity to swap a new, healthier habit in. And remember, when forming this new habit, you'll need: a consistent cue, to be mindful of the reward and to repeat the behavior within this context for an extended period of time.
Some habits are hard to form, though — especially if the reward is more abstract, like better health. If you're struggling to get a healthy habit to stick, you may need to consider attaching an extrinsic reward to the behavior. For instance, let yourself watch an episode of your favorite guilty-pleasure TV show while you're working out. Remember, though, the key to whatever reward you choose is for it to be immediate.