Making Habits, Breaking Habits

Christmas in Spain doesn’t finish until January 6th, when the three kings take their presents to Baby Jesus, and to good children.

So it’s sort-of new year today. Or at least, it’s the first day of 2015 when I’ve had time to get off the hamster wheel for some medium-to-long term planning. So I’m reading “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” by Jeremy Dean.
Like most people, I don’t do very well at New Year’s resolutions, so I thought I’d try some science. Jeremy Dean is a psychologist, and unlike most self help, this books based on research not personal opinions.

Chapter 1 Birth of a habit

So how long does it take to form a new habit?

If you Google it, the answer’s always 3 weeks – but nobody seems to quote any actual – you know – SCIENCE. Jeremy Dean never did find out where the “21 days” comes from, apart from the Internet echo chamber. But he did find a 2010 study whgich found that it depends on what the new habit is. No, really?

The bad news is that it seems to take anywhere from 20 to 250 days. The good news is that skipping the odd day wasn’t nearly as bad as some websites suggest. And that was students just trying on their own, without any advice.

You spend somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of your waking hours on habits.

  • You’re only half aware of doing them.
  • You have no strong feelings about them. 
  • You tend to do the same things in the same situation. You get in the car, and you put the radio on.
This sort of automatic behaviour saves a lot of time and effort. You really notice it when you move house, and all that automatic behaviour has to be done conciously (Where is the damn potato peeler? Where’e the light switch?) It’s very tiring. But since your cues for automatic behaviour have been removed, it does at least make it easier to change our habits.

This article has 2 Comments

  1. Habits are essential to avoiding the constant stress of having to make decisions every few seconds or wasting time spinning your mental wheels because you don’t know what comes next. They’re the same thing as subroutines for computer programming–simple repeated actions that can be plugged in as needed. Sometimes they aren’t in our best interests, and we need to make an effort to break them–which requires first, becoming aware of our habitual behavior, and next, making a conscious effort to replace a routine with a new one. At my age, I’m trying to formulate good habits that will carry me through even if my mind starts to fail. I recommend taking one habit at a time so the task isn’t so overwhelming that it’s doomed to failure.

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