The Science of Habits
With the start of the new year, a lot of us are thinking a lot about our goals and dreams for the coming year. We dream about finally breaking free of old habits and bringing in new ones that will help us reach those goals.
Come February or March, many of us will have fallen off track. Which leads to the questions: why are good habits so hard to make? And the bad habits so hard to break? What even are habits in the first place, and why do humans have them?
First, let's talk about what habits are and what they mean for our brains. When we do things often enough, it becomes second nature - we don’t have to think about every little thing we do. That is a habit – the things we do without thinking. Can you imagine if you had to think and make decisions about each small task of the day? How to put pants on, how to chew, how to brush your teeth. It’d be exhausting!
Habits are essentially a neurological preservation technique - a shortcut for our brains. When we don't have to think about every little task we perform, we use less cognitive effort. This frees our brains up for complex thinking and decision making. This means we can use our brainpower to make better decisions and think about important issues.
Of course, there are good and bad habits - some negatively impact our lives while others lead to long-term health. Turns out, there is a physiological reason why bad habits are easy to form. Many substances and behaviors we associate with being “bad” including using drugs, eating sugar, gambling, even surfing the internet – tap into a deep-seated reward system in our brains. Even though we may have long-term negative consequences for these behaviors, the short-term pleasure/reward keeps us wanting more. This is why “bad” habits take hold so quickly.
Good habits are hard to form for the very opposite reason. Exercising, eating healthy foods, and other healthful behaviors don’t tap into the reward system of the brain – at least not as strongly. We often must endure relatively less desirable short-term outcomes to achieve long-term gains.
The good news is, healthy behaviors can eventually become habits, we just have to keep at it. As Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones Solution says, "Only things you do for a long time positively impact your life expectancy." The time it takes to form a habit is highly variable. One study found that it took someone anywhere from 18-254 days to form a habit.
Here two completely different approaches to habit-creation.
- Start small: add or subtract one thing at a time. Maybe you’ll start with walking every morning, maybe it’ll be drinking enough water during the day. Maybe you’re trying to quit smoking. Whatever it is, commit for at least one month. At the end of the month, assess your progress and see whether you’re ready to add one more to your day, and consider adding or subtracting another habit.
- Go Big: change a few habits all at once. Adopt healthier eating habits, exercise, quit smoking, meditate, whatever. All at the same time. Sometimes, it can be motivating to take it all on at the same time. You’ll see changes faster, and it just might give you the steam to keep at it. Just be sure not to set unrealistic goals, and be kind to yourself throughout the process.
If you need some help setting health goals, or making and breaking habits, schedule an appointment today!
 Buettner D. The Blue Zones solution: eating and living like the worlds healthiest people. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic; 2015.
 Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., Potts, H. W. W. and Wardle, J. (2010), How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol., 40: 998–1009. doi:10.1002/ejsp.674