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How to form healthy habits

20 February 2022

Many of us set ourselves goals. Whether they’re big or small, long-term or short-term, we all start off with the right intentions. We might want to become fitter or eat healthier, maybe we want to try and create some more ‘me-time’ throughout the week. But did you know that unless we make this intention part of our routine and turn it into a habit then seven in ten people (70%) of us fail to achieve our goals.1

So how do we go about turning these goals into habits, so that they become part of our routines to the point where we’re not even consciously thinking about it; like putting on socks or brushing our teeth?

Dr Annabel Bentley, AXA Health’s Chief Medical Officer, explains the science behind forming habits and how to make it easier to slot into our existing behaviours, so we’re in the three in ten people who make a positive new habit. 

How do we form habits?

Most of us turn off a light when leaving a room or check the front door is locked at night, often doing these actions without thinking. That’s because they’ve become a habit, they’re etched into our brains and have become an automatic part of our routine.

But there is some science behind all this. In fact, researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology found “a three-step neurological pattern that forms the core of every habit”.2

  1. The cue – this is a reminder or trigger that tells your brain to complete this routine behaviour. Examples of this could be a notification, the time or even whether it’s daylight or night-time. 
  2. The routine – this is the action itself or the behaviour you undertake.
  3. The reward – if the behaviour then leads to a reward then this helps our brains determine whether it’s worth remembering this habit loop.

Our brains actually turn off the decision-making part and instead the part of the brain that controls memories and pattern recognition takes over, allowing behaviours to become automatic.3

Most habits also do have rewards, whether that’s instant or for the future. In the example of turning off the light – the longer-term reward is saving electricity and therefore lowering bills. But if a behaviour has a more immediate reward, then we’re more likely to repeat it and turn it into a habit. 

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How long does it take to form a habit?

There’s a common myth that it takes 21 days to form a habit. However, a researcher at University College London (UCL) did a study in 2009 and found that it is more like 2 months, with her research finding that it took “66 days for a habit to become ingrained.”4

The behaviours were different for each participant but ranged from drinking water with lunch to going for a 15-minute run every day and were carried out over 12 weeks. The average length for the behaviour to become a habit was recorded was 2 months (66 days) although some of the harder tasks took longer at over 8 months (254 days). 

Why we break habits

There are various factors that make it less likely to form a habit. These can be internal or external, and if we avoid these mistakes then we’re more likely to succeed in keeping the behaviour as a habit:

  • No reward/positive reinforcement – We know that if a behaviour is followed by a reward then we’re more likely to repeat it. Externally this could be praise from friends or family, money or results. Whereas, an internal reward could be the release of dopamine, the feel-good chemical in your brain. Without these reinforcements our brains aren’t working to remember this behaviour.
  • Understanding the why – Ask yourself how committed you are in wanting to achieve a goal. There is a difference between a should and a must. “Those who try and fail set personal goals for change that they feel they should set. They should lose weight, exercise, work fewer hours, read more, keep a journal, and be mindful…feeling that we should do something rarely results in lasting change.”5 However, changing your mindset to ‘must’ can help make a habit last. If we’re clear about the why and understand the end goal or result we’re trying to achieve, then the positives that come from this keeps us on the right track.
  • Ease – If we make something too hard to achieve or set our sights too high then we’re already setting ourselves up for a failure. If a behaviour is too hard to maintain then chances are we’ll give up on it when our motivation starts to falter. However, by making it easier our motivation remains steady. 

So, if we know what can cause us to break a habit or not form one in the first place, what can we do to help ensure our intentions become reality and our goals are met?

Steps to help form habits and reach our goals

  1. Incorporation – can you link a new behaviour into an existing habit so that this new action becomes part of your automatic routine? If you make a coffee every morning, then while the coffee brews can you do a quick five-minute workout? Not only is this easy to undertake, and therefore making it more achievable, it’s using the time we’ve already allocated in our day. If we make a coffee without thinking about it, then adding in 5 minutes’ worth of stretches each morning during this time will eventually help turn this exercise into part of your existing habit. 
  2. Motivation – motivation comes in different forms for different people. For some it’s about making the behaviour easy to achieve, for others it’s recording results to keep you on track or perhaps it’s recognition from others? Whatever your motivation is, remind yourself of these when you’re starting out with a goal in mind. The more we repeat the behaviour the more likely it is we’ll stick to it; especially if we’re rewarded for it. 
  3. Reminders – set up notifications on your phone, put up sticky notes around the house or set up meetings for yourself in your diary – whichever works for you. These reminders are the first step in the habit loop we explained earlier. Having cues or triggers help pave the way for turning a behaviour into a habit. 
  4. Starting small – small steps can be key when achieving a goal. If we set an unrealistic aim that feels like a mountain to climb, then we will quickly by deterred from trying to complete it. A technique that can also be used is creating microhabits: “incremental adjustments that (over time) move you closer to achieving your goals. Think of them like stepping-stones that lead to your final destination.”6

Examples of microhabits could be: 

  • Stretching your legs every time you walk up the stairs
  • Charging your phone away from you when you’re working or when in bed, so you’re not tempted to keep checking our social media
  • Spending two minutes a day focusing on your breathing. Could be when you’re showering or waiting for public transport, but just stopping and doing some mindful breathing can help improve stress levels and give us a sense of calm
  • If you’re waiting for dinner to cook, then put on some music and have a dance around the kitchen.

If you want some further help in staying motivated and how to stick to your goals then we’ve highlighted the 5 reasons you’ve lost your motivation (and how to get it back).

AXA Health’s Health and Wellbeing Programme Manager, Sarah Kemp, shares her ideas for incorporating Feelgood Health hacks into every day activities. Watch our series of videos highlighting how easy it is to start small. 

References:

  1. Why People Fail to Achieve Their Goals – Reliable Plant
  2. Changing Habits – The Learning Center
  3. Habits: How They Form And How To Break Them – NPR
  4. How long does it take to change your life, change a habit or to form a new one? – Metro
  5. 7 Proven Steps to Forming Habits That Last – Psychology Today
  6. What Does It Really Take to Build a New Habit? – Harvard Business Review