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Establishing New Habits – The 21-day Myth

April 21, 2020

In this season it is important to establish a new ROUTINE, which starts from looking after ourselves and then inspiring others to do the same. 

While in the past our life was more rushed, we now have the time to take a closer look and review what routines we can establish to take care of ourselves better.  As we commit to certain activities and perform them in a routine manner, we can slowly move into automation and develop new habits that can better serve us. 

So, how long does it take to establish a habit?

The standard answer you will find is 21 days, however, this is now considered a myth. 

According to a 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit. The study also concluded that, on average, it takes 66 days for a new behaviour to become automatic.  This is because there is a range of variables in the habit-forming process that makes it impossible to establish a one-size-fits-all answer.

So where did the “21-day” myth come from? It can be traced back to Psycho-Cybernetics, a book published in 1960 by Dr Maxwell Maltz, which sold more than 30 million copies.

Maltz didn’t make this claim, but rather referenced this number as an observable metric in both himself and his patients at this time.

He wrote: “These, and many other commonly observed phenomena, tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to gel.”

So, what does recent research tell us?

According to a recent study published in the British Journal of General Practice, habits are “actions that are triggered automatically in response to contextual cues that have been associated with their performance.” For example, when you get into your car, you automatically put on the seat belt. You don’t think about doing it or why you do it.

Your brain likes habits because they’re efficient. When you automate common actions, you free up mental resources for other tasks. 

Why is it difficult to break a habit?

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), pleasure-based habits are particularly difficult to break, because enjoyable behaviour prompts your brain to release the reward hormone dopamine and this strengthens the habit and creates the craving to do it again.

How to change a habit

Dr Nora Volkow, director of the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, suggests that the first step is to become more aware of your habits so you can develop strategies to change them. 

One strategy, Volkow suggests, is to identify the places, people, or activities that are linked in your mind to certain habits, and then to change your behaviour towards them.

For example, if you have a substance use disorder, you can be deliberate about avoiding situations where you’d be more likely to be around the substance. This can help you achieve your goal of abstaining from using that substance. 

Another strategy is to replace a bad habit with a good one. For example, instead of snacking on potato chips, consider swapping for sweet potato chips or snacking on vegetables with healthy dips. 

When we look at the recent studies, they conclude that it takes 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit and an average of 66 days for a new behaviour to become automatic. But how can we achieve good habits quickly rather than taking a full year? 

As we saw above, the key is to consider the pleasure or benefits that the new habit will help you achieve.  The more you focus on the rewards the quicker your brain will support the action and release dopamine that will make you feel good and this will help you perform the task at hand.

So, what new habit can we learn this week and how can we appreciate the benefit we can gain from it?  Let’s look at the Vagus Nerve – it’s role in our health and how we can stimulate it in a pleasurable way to support stress management and further better our health.

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