The Science Behind Habits

THE SCIENCE BEHIND HABITS

Did you know that 40% of our daily actions aren't actually decisions, but habits? (1). This is basically a technique your brain employs so it can go about regular tasks on autopilot without having to use up too much brainpower. The flip side of this seemingly effortless technique is you have to fight to switch off that autopilot switch if you want to change a habit.

The good news is that according to Pulitzer-prize winning author Charles Duhigg, "what we know from lab studies is that it's never too late to break a habit.” (2) So without further ado, let’s investigate the science behind successfully forming new habits and changing bad habits for positive ones.

The Power of Habit

In his New York Times bestseller, The Power of Habit' (3), Charles Duhigg examines how marketers use their understanding of habits to encourage us to buy their products. He describes a psychological pattern called a 'habit loop', which involves a cue, a routine, and a reward.

Duhigg explains how a US firm used this technique to sell toothpaste. First, they used the cue of 'get rid of the film on your teeth', then they introduced the routine of brushing your teeth, and finally the reward is the minty fresh taste.

This 'habit loop' can be applied to any habit you're trying to introduce, and don't be afraid to get creative with the rewards. For example, treating yourself to 15 minutes on social media after a gym class is a fun reward for sticking to a routine (working out) inspired by a cue (your fitness goal).

Five Habit-Forming Steps


James Clear is one of the world's leading experts on habit formation. In his million-selling New York Times bestseller, Atomic Habits (4), Clear describes the five small steps you can follow to help you successfully introduce a new habit to your lifestyle.

Step 1: Start small

If you're determined to make your new habit stick, start small. Although it's tempting to dive straight in with all guns blazing, the transition will be easier for your body to adapt to if you make the new change easy enough to do without motivation.

So, if you want to introduce a new habit of performing 50 sit-ups each day, start by doing five sit-ups as you get out of bed each morning. This smaller approach is far less intimidating and easier to stick to when you're starting out.   

Step 2: The 1% rule

Once you're up-and-running with the 'start small' approach to your new habit, aim to add to it 1% each day. Although this might seem a tiny amount, if you stick to the 1% rule for a year you'll see a 37% improvement to that habit.

Clear explains that a 1% advantage might seem “razor-thin”, but gives the example of how, to an Olympian, a 1% advantage can make the difference between silver and gold. In other words, a 1% improvement could bring you 100% of the victory.

Step 3: Break it up

When you're starting out, introducing a new habit can seem overwhelming. For example, sticking to our 50 sit-ups example, it's easy to talk yourself out of trying because of lack of time and, well, 50 is a big number!  

To get around these common stumbling blocks, Clear recommends breaking big habits down from one overwhelming task into smaller manageable ones. So instead of feeling the pressure of completing 50 sit-ups in one sitting, you could aim to complete five sets of 10 sit-ups at different intervals throughout the day.

Step 4: It's ok to miss a day...just don't make it two

The one thing we know for sure about best-laid plans is that life gets in the way. And Clear acknowledges that it's perfectly ok to miss a day when you're trying to introduce a new habit. The key point here is to ensure it is just ONE day, and not two. One missed day is ok, two is a pattern.

So don't be hard on yourself if you miss a day for whatever reason, just be sure to get back on that horse again the following day and pick up from where you left off. After all, says Clear, "habits are behaviours that we repeat consistently. However, they are not behaviours that we repeat perfectly."

Step 5: Patience is key

When it comes to habit-forming, consistency is key. It's simply not possible to re-wire your brain's way of thinking overnight. Think of it as playing the long game. Clear describes it as giving “your success time to cook.”

So be patient and find a sustainable pace that works for you. This may mean starting slower than you'd like to, which brings us back to steps 1 and 3: don't be afraid to start small and break down your goal into smaller, manageable activities.

 

Train & Maintain

When it comes to building healthy habits that last, we're here to help. Have you heard about our 12-week Train & Maintain challenge? Find out more here.

 

References

(1) Habits: A Repeat Performance by David T. Neal, Wendy Wood, and Jeffrey M. Quinn

(2) https://www.npr.org/2012/03/05/147192599/habits-how-they-form-and-how-to-break-them?t=1579983769836

(3) The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg, https://charlesduhigg.com/the-power-of-habit/

(4) Atomic Habits An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, James Clear, https://jamesclear.com/