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What to Know About Forming Habits

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 27, 2021

You’ve probably been in awe of people with strong habits, the people who wake up early, exercise regularly, eat well, and are successful at the end of the day. The main thing they’ll credit for their success is their habits and routines.

What Are Habits?

Habits aren’t active choices you make. They’re automatic responses. Deciding to go to the gym today isn’t a habit, but going without giving it a second thought is.

Habits aren’t easily labeled as “good” or “bad.” Many bad habits make you feel good. It’s more accurate to say that bad habits keep you from who you want to be, and good habits will help you get there.

Habit formation is based on the discoveries of Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist. While researching how dogs salivate when fed, he accidentally discovered the concept of conditioning.

The famous experiment of Pavlov’s dogs in the 1890s revealed that you can train your brain to respond a certain way to specific stimuli. Because a bell was rung at dinnertime, dogs started drooling at the sound of the bell in preparation for their dinner.

For example, you may want to link the smell of lavender with bedtime. You can use a lavender room spray (stimulus), get into bed, and go to sleep (outcome). When you do this often enough, you train yourself to get sleepy when you smell lavender.

The more you can automate your decision-making, the more time you can give to what matters. Habits help you become the person you want to be.

Putting together your habits makes a routine. Routines and habits determine your behavior. Your behavior determines your identity.

How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?

It takes as long as it needs to take. The easier and more desirable the habit is, the quicker it will form. More difficult habits take longer. On average, it takes about 66 days for a habit to form.

It’s less about the amount of time it takes and more about the repetition. A habit you practice every day will form much faster than a weekly habit.

Start with Small Habits

As with any new pursuit, you need to start small. Changing your behavior feels like a huge task. That’s why vague resolutions like “losing weight” are doomed to fail.

The best place to start with a new habit is the smallest place. Think of the smallest possible thing you can do toward your habit, and master it. Make it impossible not to do.

If your goal is to work out and lose weight, don’t start by following a workout plan. Instead, think about steps like:

  • Put on your workout clothes
  • Pack a gym bag
  • Go to the gym (but don’t work out)
  • Walk for 2 minutes

Set your expectations small to match the first step. If you only go to the gym, but that was your only intention, you did it! Do it a few more times for good measure, and then take the next step.

Other Tips for Forming Habits

Use yourenvironment. If you want to eat more fruit, put fruit in plain sight on the counter. If you want to exercise more, keep your workout gear within reach. If you want to read more, always carry a book with you.

To break a bad habit, do the opposite: Make it harder to do. Don’t keep soda or snacks around the house if you’re trying to lose weight.

Stack habits. Try pinning a new habit to one you already do by using the formula, “When I do X, I will then do Y.” When you eat a meal, go for a walk afterward. When you take a restroom break, drink a glass of water.

Make itenjoyable. If you dread working out, try listening to your favorite podcast while you do it. If you hate vegetables, find tasty recipes that make you want to eat them. It’s hard to form a habit if you hate doing it.

For a bad habit, make it so you don’t want to do it. If you’re trying to stop smoking, think of the good things that will happen when you quit. Make the act of smoking undesirable by comparison.

Celebrate your wins. There’s no better way to enjoy forming a habit than to celebrate them. Set up a reward system for when you do your habit every day, or a long-term reward if you do the habit for a week.

Be understanding. It’s OK to miss a day. There will be roadblocks during the process. Let it pass, and try again tomorrow.

You can take these moments and reevaluate your system. What caused you to miss a day? Is there a way to keep that from happening again? What can you do differently? No matter what, keep going.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

British Journal of General Practice: "Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice." 

Clear, J. Atomic Habits, Penguin Random House, 2018.

Harvard Business Review: “What Does It Really Take to Build a New Habit?”

Iowa University Human Resources: “Habit Science.”

NPR: “'Tiny Habits' Are The Key To Behavioral Change.”

SimplePsychology: “Classical Conditioning,” “Pavlov's Dogs.”

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