How to develop a healthy habit?

June 23, 2020

The current pandemic situation is tough and stressful for our physical and psychological health. A lot of people had to go through the complete change of their daily routine and daily habits: staying at home, stop exercising outdoors, eating differently, finding new occupations. These changes are not easy for the human brain, as it prefers routines: once the path is created, the brain tries to keep it, whatever the cost (1)

And now that the pandemic situation is improving in certain parts of the world, we have to get back to our daily routine, break some bad habits adopted during the lockdown and replace them with new healthy ones. It is said it takes 21 days to create a new habit, but is it as simple as it sounds? Let’s understand how this mechanism works.

The interesting explanation was suggested by the study Craving to quit: Psychological models and neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness training as treatment for addictions, by J. Brewer, who demonstrated the way our habits form and if and how would it be possible to change them. The outcome of the study( was quite impressive by its…simplicity.

When we are trying to change our habits, we are actually fighting against one of the oldest evolutionary survival instincts. Called positive and negative reinforcement, this process goes basically through 3 steps:

Trigger – Behavior – Reward – Repeat
Example: Being hungry – Eating food – Feeling good – Repeating

The problem is created when your brain uses this strategy to reward yourself after a difficult situation or negative feeling, sort of telling you: “Hmm.. you know what? You can use this process also for other negative triggers when you are sad for example!”

And it works! The trigger is different, but the process and especially the reward remains the same:

Example: Being sad – Eating food (reward) – Feeling good…Repeating.

Why is it happening? To understand that, let’s dig a bit into our brain. There is a zone, called the prefrontal cortex (front part of our brain), which is responsible for our rational behaviour and control (2).

Unfortunately, when we are stressed, this zone “switches off”, leaving the complete freedom of action to another part of your brain, the most primitive one, called the Reptilian brain that is responsible for our instincts and unconscious behaviour.

By its essence, this process is vital, allowing us, for example, to remove our hand from a hot pot without even thinking about it, acting with only our survival instinct.

However, in the case of breaking a bad habit or developing a healthy one, this mechanism plays against us. When trying to get rid of a given habit, we are attempting to control our instinctive behaviour, which, under pressure (happening quite often in our daily life…) falls apart.

How can we reverse this situation? According to Judson Brewer’s research, we should create a new virtuous circle:

Notice the urge – Get curious – Feel the joy of letting go – Repeat

Let’s take an example: you would like to eat healthier, but you are always craving for sugary food. Try this: next time you have this craving, stop, take a break, breath and try to listen to your real need inside: maybe you are just tired, or stressed or angry. Drink some water, go for a walk and if after this you still want to eat something sugary, do it without guilt. Your body is smart and will ask you for only what it really needs. Later you will feel real hunger and in this case, you will for sure appreciate some vegetables.

The negative feeling that triggers the bad habit reaction is often influenced by stress and instinct, not reason. Hence, making an effort to understand what is truly driving your habit will help you get the control back. As we explained in one of our previous posts, there are multiple ways to help you cope with stress. Managing it will help you realise which habits you want to keep, and which ones are worsening your quality of life.

And finally, the question is how much time would it take you to make your new healthy behaviour a habit?
As we said at the beginning, the minimum time it takes to develop a healthy habit is 21 days. However, it was proven that this point is very personal, so please do not get discouraged if after 21 days you are still struggling!

Indeed, a health psychology researcher Phillippa Lally, from the University College of London has performed an interesting study (3) on this topic, which was published in the European Journal of Social Psychology. The study examined 96 people over a 12-week period, each of whom decided to develop a new habit. The results were impressive: on average, it took more than 2 months before a new behaviour becomes automatic — 66 days exactly. The differences between participants were highly depending on the mindset, the character of the person, and the circumstances.

Creating a new habit is a road, not a destination. And everyone has its own, exciting one. We want to walk this journey with you so, each month, we propose a healthy challenge in our social media. You will find useful tips and tricks to help you form this new habit and improve your quality of life as a result.

Ready for our monthly healthy challenge?

[1] Graybiel AM. Habits, rituals, and the evaluative brain. Annu. Rev. Neurosci.. 2008 Jul 21;31:359-87.

[2] Brewer, J. A., Elwafi, H. M., Davis, J. H. (2013) Psychology of Addictive Behaviors 27(2): 366-79

[3] Lally P, Van Jaarsveld CH, Potts HW, Wardle J. How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European journal of social psychology. 2010 Oct;40(6):998-1009.