We truly are creatures of habit.
Nearly half of our everyday behaviors tend to be repeated in the same location almost every day, according to research out of Duke University. That means most of the time we are running on autopilot.
This is a good thing. “Without habits, people would be doomed to plan, consciously guide, and monitor every action, from making that first cup of coffee in the morning to sequencing the finger movements in a Chopin piano concerto,” the researchers David Neal, Wendy Wood, and Jeffrey Quinn write.
So what of the new habits we’re working hard to form–the ones that seem to suddenly veer off course?
It’s a familiar story: You’re chugging along with a new routine proud-as-can-be of your newfound diligence. Then something happens. You have one too many margaritas at happy hour. It rains. You get a migraine. There’s a giant unmanned cookie platter in the kitchen at work. You name it. A good habit–even one we’ve been sticking with for a few solid weeks–often seems to derail itself at the slightest slip-up and that’s it–you’ve fallen from the train and it’s speeding off without you.
Why does it happen? Did you not stay at it long enough? The notion that a habit takes 21 days to form if you stick to it every day is a myth, says psychologist Jeremy Dean in his book Making Habits, Breaking Habits.
On average, a habit takes more like 66 days to form, with more intensive habits like doing 50 sit-ups every morning taking around 84 days to form, according to research out of University College of London that Dean references in his book. But these figures will often vary greatly from person to person.
Forming habits that stick isn’t about finding a magic number. It’s about being aware of your behaviors and environment and their effects on your brain. Here are some steps to get started:
Building a habit essentially means training your brain to do the same thing over and over without having to pause and think about it. That only comes from repetition and cueing up whatever sequence of actions has to happen for that habit to take place. If you want to run every day, you don’t tell yourself you’ll run when you have free time each day because you know you’ll always find something else to do.
Instead, you create cues. You run every day at the same time. You set your shoes in front of the door to signal to your brain that you need to put them on. You drink a glass of water right when you wake up. You do the same set of stretches. Whatever you need to do to tell your brain “it’s time to run,” you do that same sequence of events each day in the same order.
According to habit research, neural evidence shows that sequences of responses get chunked in the memory with repetition. A habit doesn’t just stand alone in your brain. It’s woven in with a whole network of actions. And done enough, those actions start to happen on autopilot.
Building new positive habits into your brain also means breaking old bad ones. This means dissecting your bad behaviors to better understand what triggers them and eliminating or avoiding those triggers. “If you regularly eat chips while sitting on the couch, after a while, seeing the couch will automatically prompt you to reach for the Doritos,” says Wood in this New York Times story. “These associations are sometimes so strong that you have to replace the couch with a wooden chair for a diet to succeed.”
But that doesn’t mean you have to redecorate your house in Spartan furniture. It means understanding what triggers certain behaviors and actively avoiding those triggers. “When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision-making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks,” writes Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit. “Unless you deliberately fight a habit–unless you find new routines–the pattern will unfold automatically.”
Research out of MIT has shown that the basal ganglia, the brain region linked to our performance of habits, is most active at the beginning of a behavior, when the habit is cued, and at the end, when it’s rewarded. The study looked at rats running through a maze to get a piece of chocolate. For these rats, the basal ganglia was most active at the start and end of the task, but once the chocolate was removed, the rats lost interest and no longer followed sound cues that helped them reach the end of the maze. When the chocolate reward was put back, the rats resumed their positive learned pattern of running through the maze.
The study is just one of many illustrating how important triggers and rewards are to forming and maintaining habits. Having a clear reward at the end of a task is critical in helping to form and solidify it as a habit. It could be a smoothie at the end of a run or a beautiful view at the end of a bike ride–whatever your reward, it has to be more than just the activity itself to get you going.