Science, Now + Beyond

5 steps to help you take control of your habits

What you really want to aim for instead of changing your goals, is changing your habit cues.

It’s the end of January when the momentum of the New Year and all that motivation to create resolutions starts to wear off. It can feel sometimes like we have no control over our habits, whether that’s over breaking the ones we hate or forming ones that help craft your new year, new you persona. 

There’s a common myth that proclaims 21 days as the amount of time it takes to form a new habit. Unfortunately, studies about habits show that the average time it takes to make new habits is really around 66 days. For some people, it can even take over 200 days. Yikes.

What exactly are habits?

They seem like automatic actions, but they’re not quite that simple. Getting a little psychological, habits are responses to cues, or triggers, that have been reinforced over time. Oftentimes, habits form in response to the pursuit of goals, although you’re probably not always consciously aware of this interaction. The cycle of habits looks something like this: cue/trigger, habit behavior, goal/reward. So now that you know that habits don’t happen willy-nilly but are practiced behavioral responses, you can tackle changing them.  

The way that we break habits and form new ones is not simply by forming new goals. I know from experience that even though my goal might be to watch less Netflix, somehow I still find myself in binges that leave me half-comatose.

What you really want to aim for instead of changing your goals, is changing your habit cues.

So here’s a list of 5, scientifically-backed way to make and keep new habits. 

1. Make a list of your current habits.

black and white short clip of hands typing quickly on vintage type writer

This list doesn’t have to be good or bad habits – just any habits at all.

The habit of brushing your teeth, for example. Think about what goals those habits might be leading you to, and the context around them. You brush your teeth in the morning so that you don’t get cavities. Most people probably brush their teeth after eating breakfast and might feel the urge to brush after eating a snack. The cue, then, for this habit, would be eating food. 

It might be difficult to see that your habits are moving you towards a goal, and not every habit is quite so intentional. But analyzing your current habits will help you in your journey of eliminating those pesky bad habits from your life.

2. Avoid those habit cues

Man turning around and running away into a crowd of people

Avoidance, while we shouldn’t use it for everything, works pretty well for breaking habits.

Remember, habits feel automatic, but they’re really responses to cues. So, let’s say you want to break a bad habit of cracking your knuckles incessantly. I may or may not be talking about myself here. And, let’s say, after you’ve analyzed your current habits, you realize that your cue for cracking your knuckles is when you start to feel antsy or restless, like when you’ve been sitting down for too long. You could avoid feeling like that by standing up and stretching every so often or playing with a stress ball.

3. Use your memory

Woman saying "I have no memory of this whatsoever"

Memory is important when it comes to making new habits. We build habits by responding to cues, but that response doesn’t become habitual unless it’s practiced. A technique called Habit Replacement Looping suggests that when making new habits, it’s important to pick a cue that you’ll remember. For example, let’s say you want to form the habit of reading before you go to sleep. A good cue might be shutting your laptop and putting it out of reach, or keeping a book on top of your bed so that you have to see it before crawling in.

Performing the new habit at the same time each day also helps to reinforce it, as well as jotting down notes to keep track of your progress.

4. Reward yourself.

Blonde Caucasian woman with red lipstick standing and holding a take away cup of coffee with caption "There's nothing wrong with treating yourself, dear"

Remember, habits serve to move you toward a goal, but that doesn’t mean you can’t reinforce positive habits with other non-goal related things. Pair that new reading endeavor with a cup of your favorite tea or piece of chocolate. Every day that you don’t crack your knuckles, treat yourself to a stop in your favorite coffee shop. Rewarding yourself will help motivate you and keep you on track, and helps to reinforce the new habit.

Who doesn’t love having a super legit reason to do nice things for yourself??

5. Accept that it’s going to be a bumpy road.

Ariana Grande trips on her teal maxi dress while walking towards a reporter on the red carpet but recovers, Caption "Oh Sweet Jesus"

Your journey to make and break habits isn’t going to be smooth. There will be days when you feel motivated and days when you give in to your old habits. This is ok. A slip up here and there won’t get rid of all the progress you’ll make. Habits are all about long-term repetition: one day doesn’t have anything on 50 days of practice. Remember to keep on persevering, be kind to yourself, and keep track of your progress so that even on bad days you can see how many good days you’ve had.

Now you know the science behind habit breaking and making. Go forth and make 2018 your best year yet!