A habit is simply a learned tendency to repeat past behavior. They are consistent and automatic, usually triggered by some sort of context or cue, like an emotion (internal) or time of day (external). Taking a shower each day, going on an after-dinner walk, writing in your gratitude journal before bed, or scrolling on Instagram when you’re bored are all examples of habits.
It’s often said that it takes 21 days to form a habit, but if you’ve ever tried to adopt a new mindset or behavior, this timeline may seem short-sighted. Fortunately, you’re not alone! According to a 2012 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes an average of 66 days for something to become a habit. Another study found that habit formation, which depends on the person, the behavior, the consistency, and more, takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days.
How to Adopt a New Habit
Now, let’s dig a little deeper and take a closer look at the six principles of habit formation.
1. Habits are goal-independent.
You may form a habit as you pursue a goal, but over time, the behavior no longer depends on the initial goal. For instance, you might learn to meditate in an effort to overcome anxious thoughts but continue the practice long after your anxiety is under control. In other words, the behavior eventually becomes a part of your daily routine.
2. Habits are cued by context.
As mentioned above, habits are directly linked to context, either internal or external cues. Try to practice your new behavior under constant circumstances each day: at the same time, in the same mood, with the same people, and in the same place. Generally, it’s more effective to use event-based cues instead of time-based cues. For example, drink a glass of water when you wake up each morning rather than at 9 a.m. every day.
3. Habits are learned through repetition.
Beyond associating a habit with a certain context, you can also use reminders on your phone or even post-it notes to help you stay on track. The more you practice it, the more automatic it will become!
4. Habits are automatic.
They require little attention or conscious awareness, which is why bad habits can be so hard to break. We generally engage in behaviors that require less effort, so look for potential barriers that make it difficult to make positive choices.
5. Habits are reinforced with rewards such as praise, an extra hour of television, or a new pair of shoes.
Partial reinforcement (rewarding a behavior sometimes) is more impactful than continuous reinforcement (rewarding a behavior every time). Still, in the beginning, you should use continuous reinforcement to create a strong link between the behavior and the reinforcer. Note that rewards can lose their power and may need to be replaced over time.
6. Habits take time to develop.
Be patient and try to focus on forming one habit at a time. Stay consistent and use positive reinforcers as you practice the new behavior. This idea is true if you’re in therapy too. If you’re working to change multiple habits, your treatment may need to last longer than just a few months.
Next month, I’ll continue this series with a blog post about why habits are important.