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Day 38: 'H' is for HABIT

Monday, February 07, 2011

"To change a habit, make a conscious decision, then act out the new behavior." --Maxwell Maltz

I Googled whether it really takes '21 Days To Form New Habits.' I wanted to know if the oft-repeated advice is true, so I went looking to see if someone, somewhere, had data to prove it.

Most sources simply state 'Research has shown--' and 'I've heard that--' and 'One study established--' and 'Experts concluded--' Nowhere did I find any quotes that actually referenced or credited this ubiquitous study. Well, what's a Sparker to do?

I could just take it on faith... Nah. You know I'm not like that. I'm a regular Doubting Kasey.

My digging turned up a few articles stating that the concept of the 21-day-habit-change was first used in a book printed in the 1970s, which ascribed the three-week timeline to a serious scientific report. Two other articles gave credit to a book published in 1960 by a medical doctor. I found several things that kind of debunked the myth altogether.

That was the bad news.

The good news? Several reputable institutes and universities have done in-depth studies about how the brain learns, develops patterns, and incorporates information to make - or break - habits.

Dr G. Alan Marlatt is director of the University of Washington's Addictive Behaviors Research Center. He said they found that while the first few weeks of trying to break a bad habit or start a new one are the hardest, once you're past those first three or four weeks, the pattern has been set, making the new 'mindset' easier to maintain. (Gee, sounds like SP's famous 'streak' to me!)

Phillippa Lally, a psychologist at the University College London, set up a study in which the subjects were to learn new habits (as opposed to dropping 'bad' ones). The subjects took an average of SIXTY-SIX days - 8 to 10 weeks! - before they reported the new behaviors had been ingrained and felt 'automatic.'

Ann Graybiel, Ph.D., a professor at MIT: after extensive studies on learning and behavior, she found that there are physical changes in the brain which can be charted as new habits form. However, these changes can be undone relatively quickly if the habits are 'broken,' with the new pattern no longer receiving input and reinforcement. But she and her team also found that the 're-establishment' of the new habit happens much more quickly than it did the first time. In other words, even though it has been abandoned, it can be recovered much faster than a totally new habit can be learned.

Consider some of the more positive facts that these various researchers also uncovered:

1) The length of time to establish a new habit often varied with the 'difficulty' of the habit. Subjects who were trying to start a new habit of drinking more water each day, or wanting to break a bad habit of hitting the 'snooze' on their alarms, had a much easier time than did subjects who were trying to learn more complex behaviors - such as staying within a narrow range of calories. And addictive behaviors, such as smoking, were (understandably) the most difficult of all to change.

2) People who were trying to change just one habit, in either direction, reported more success than people who were trying to change three or more habits. It appeared that 'undoing' a bad habit (late to work) while replacing it with the better habit (five minutes early) worked better than trying to change several unrelated habits (eat a piece of fruit with lunch, walk half-an-hour daily, eliminate caffeine from the diet) at the same time.

3) Missing one day did not cause a major setback, regardless of the behavior(s) being addressed. While all the studies confirmed that consistency and repetition returned the best results, especially in the early days, many subjects were still successful even when they reported missing one, and sometimes two, days while changing a habit.

4) Those who used techniques of organizing and planning the changes they needed to make to learn new habits were among the most successful in all the studies. Those subjects were the ones who sorted what was needed for the new habit (buying new running shoes, throwing out cigarettes, getting fruit at the grocery store), then drew up WRITTEN plans with specific steps to achieve the change.

So what's the bottom line? For me, it was reassuring to know that yes, science says behaviors can be changed, positive habits can replace unhealthy ones, and even addictions can be broken, with persistence.

Much of it comes down to common sense, I think. Just like with weightloss, there's no simple solution, no one-size-fits-all answer. Patience is important: you have to be patient with yourself as you work through learning (or unlearning) a habit. Consistency is a help, as it will boost the chances of developing the habit more quickly.

Our reminders about 'baby steps' and 'one day at a time' are useful applications. We tell ourselves to 'get back on track' as quickly as possible if we revert to old, unhealthy habits. Our advice to each other that 'Failing to plan is planning to fail' is as much true when it comes to habitual behaviors as it is in anything else.

Habits aren't automatic - they require care and feeding. (This, to me, explains the 'backsliding' phenomenon, which happens when we stop practicing a habit even after it's been 'learned.') Commitment, determination, persistence... all the elements we so frequently discuss here on Spark are the very ones that are most likely to help us achieve success with habits we want to change.

"Habit is a form of exercise." --Elbert Hubbard

I feel better for that. How about you?
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Member Comments About This Blog Post
  • no profile photo CD8892603
    WOW! Thanks for all your research. very, very interesting ready!
    3666 days ago
    This was a very informative blog Hon and I thank you for sharing it with us. I also agree with all that you written here because as I was reading it I evaluated myself and def can see that I am changing my eating habits ! YAY ! Also friends have noticed it too. More confirmation YAY ! I still have a long way to go which I am happy about because the longer I use these technics of consistency, determination, and persistence, the more likely I am too acheive my success to make this a LIFETSYLE CHANGE !!!!
    3678 days ago
  • no profile photo THIAGRAM
    And so now I ask myself, what habit am I going to start with! Thanks for great words of wisdom!

    emoticon emoticon emoticon emoticon emoticon emoticon
    3678 days ago
  • no profile photo CD5233545
    enjoyed blog lol carol emoticon
    3679 days ago
    It goes to show we have to set our minds to want to change our habits..We fall & have to get ourselves up & create better habits... emoticon emoticon
    3679 days ago
    Very interesting studies!! They also show why it's easy to give up on SP after a short time, if a person doesn't see results in a short time. That person-to-person encouragement plus the educational articles on SP sure go a long way to training us to HANG IN THERE!!
    3679 days ago
  • no profile photo CD7658463
    3679 days ago
    Loved the blog! Thanks for sharing!
    3679 days ago
    Very informative! Thanks so much for sharing your findings.
    3679 days ago
    Changing habits is what it's all about here at SP!
    Thanks, this information is helpful.
    It prompts us to continue on - in spite of any feelings of discouragement - because one day, the new, improved eating habits will feel familiar and will not require the same amount of energy to keep up.
    One day, it will just be the way we usually do it: a habit.
    I can't wait!

    emoticon emoticon
    3680 days ago
    Well, I for one am impressed with your thoroughness and am glad you've done the homework. Not only that, you shared it so I don't have to do it for myself!

    Anecdotal evidence: dropping soda drinking took *me* over six months, but less than a year before I started thinking of myself as a non-soda drinker.

    Anecdotal evidence: I'm thinking it has taken repeated runs in excess of a year to make healthy nutrition seem "normal", though. And it's real easy to unravel if I don't keep a watchful eye on it!

    Here's to habits... the good kind.

    emoticon emoticon emoticon
    3680 days ago
  • REJ7777
    Thanks for doing that careful research on how habits are formed. That's very useful information to have! emoticon
    3680 days ago
    So, you can teach an old dog, new tricks.. emoticon .I am still working on replacing more desired habits with the old, less desired. There are still a few habits I want to change and after reading this blog, I think I need a written plan. Even though I usually am not one for written plans, maybe that's what I'm lacking.

    You're so right (as always emoticon )...it takes time, patience, commitment, persistence...and most of all, vigilance. Once I ease up or get lax, those old habits seem to sneak back in. Although, I do find once I slip up, it's easier to get back on track...so, that gives me hope.
    3680 days ago
  • SROUS1340
    Well it's good to know about the backsliding thing. I can't tell you how many times I've done the 21 day, 28 day, 60 day thing and still managed to unlearn my habits. That's why I keep moving. It's harder to catch a moving target! emoticon
    3680 days ago
    Great research. And my experience has been that the year+ in which I've been going regularly to the gym (with appointments with my trainer to motivate me!) has pretty much ingrained it as a "habit". I used to look for excuses to cancel, and now I look for opportunities to get there!

    Thanks for putting it down where we can all see it!

    3680 days ago
    Good to know that habits can be formed---- Thank the good Lord I'd say!!!--Maybe there is hope for me!!! Ha Ha---One habit at a time eh???--I CAN do this------- emoticon
    3680 days ago
  • DR1939
    Excellent review of the work, or lack of it, on this topic. Thanks for your effort. The behavioral analysis literature has lots of work about changing behavior. You are very wise to question a blanket statement such as this. emoticon
    3680 days ago

    Great blog, thanks!
    3680 days ago
    habits can be broken, new ones formed but it really comes down to attitude and consistency that do it for me and knowing the triggers that set off an old behavior...I for one can say that if I can stick to a new habit, replacing an old one, it usually takes me a couple of months before it sticks!
    3680 days ago
    I really enjoyed reading this. I've often accomplished something for three or four weeks and then lost my get-up-and-go. . . usually returning to my old pattern.
    I've pretty much got the walking for 30 minutes every day habit ingrained and actually miss it on the days that I can't. I'm struggling to develop 10 minutes a day of other exercises, whether it be more cardio or strength.
    I guess I'm working to make my exercise goals become my exercise habits!
    3680 days ago
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