Have you ever read that it only takes 7 to 14 days to form new, daily habits? Well, if you’ve actually tried to start a new habit before, you know it’s not that easy to make something stick. The amount of time it actually takes to establish new, daily habits will vary widely depending on the habit—and on how much effort you put into making it happen.
You’ll need to arm yourself with much more than good intentions to successfully implement daily habits. To demystify the science behind habit creation, we turn to Art Markman, PhD, who teaches the CreativeLive course The Power of Habits. Aside from his role as Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, he is executive editor of the scientific journal Cognitive Science, writes frequently for Psychology Today and Fast Company and has published three books, most recently Smart Change.
Well-versed in the art of reasoning, decision-making and motivation, Markman discusses how to apply the fundamentals of cognitive science and psychology to help get rid of bad habits and form daily habits that last longer than the milk in your fridge:
Understand what daily habits really are
Do you know what a habit really is? It’s an automatic behavior, something you do without thinking, and this action is associated with a particular environment. A habit occurs when there is a consistent relationship between information in the environment and the behavior. However, that consistent relationship has to be repeated many times in order to work—essentially, you’ve got to practice your daily habits. So what makes for a good habit? Markman defines good habits as the things we do without thinking that make us effective in our lives and allow us to move forward.
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Analyze your current daily habits
It’s critical to become aware of that automatic behavior before you can change a habit and form new, daily habits. If you don’t understand why you do the things you currently do, it’s hard to figure out how to stop doing them. “The unexamined life…” right?
Markman recommends keeping a “Habit Diary” for a couple of weeks to notice the patterns in your behavior when you’re engaged in the bad habit you want to get rid of. Try to answer the following questions as specifically as possible to get to the root of your habit, and you’ll start to discover the exact points where you can implement new behavior:
- What are you feeling and thinking at that moment?
- What else are you doing?
- What did you do right before this?
- Where are you? What is your environment like?
- What time of day is it?
- Who are you with?
Replace an old habit with a new one
The reason that New Year’s resolutions tend to fail is that people say things like “I’m going to quit smoking” or “I’m going to eat healthy foods” or “I’m going to exercise,” but have no realistic and detailed plan on how to do it. Changing our behavior is already a pretty difficult thing for humans to achieve, as Markman points out, since you’ve been working on your old habits for years. So it’s not surprising that it should take a lot of time to successfully make this change, maybe even three to six months.
But to try to do so without a plan—not the best idea. That’s why you need to replace the old habit with a new habit(s) instead of replacing it with nothing. If you are trying to stop checking your email every 10 minutes, you need to find something different to do that will take its place. You need to reprogram your brain to associate the environment you’re in with a different action, Markman says, or you can also change your environment, which can really disrupt an old behavior.
Ask friends and family for support
Because you will question yourself and wonder if your old behavior was really so bad, it helps to rope in a few friends or relatives who can set you straight. You’ll need a support network to keep you focused on your daily habits through the upheaval of your daily routine, which will probably start to feel wrong and unnatural. Let them help by reminding you of how your life was before and how your life will be improved once you implement your new daily habits.
Creating a new habit is certainly not a simple task (now you have the science to back it up!), but it is an admirable one. Continue to be mindful of your old behaviors and the reasons behind them, and you can create an effective strategy for forming new, daily habits that remain intact.
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