The Power of Habits Part 3: Establishing a Good Habit
Establishing a new habit might be your goal if you are trying to make positive changes in your life. In the last two articles, we covered the benefits of harnessing the power of habits for good and how to quit bad habits. This article will discuss how to form a good habit.
Refresher: 3 Things We Have Learned Already
#1 Habits Can Be Good
Not all habits are bad. We may assume something negative when we hear the word “habit.” This might include nail-biting, overspending, or lack of exercise. The truth is, habits can be good. Establishing a good habit can help us lead healthier and well-balanced mental, physical, and emotional lives.
#2 Bad Habits Are Hard to Break
Bad habits are hard to break because our brains are hard-wired to depend on them. Repetitive actions have trained our minds that those actions are important and necessary. This challenge makes it difficult to let go of bad habits and train our brain not to depend on them.
#3 How to Break Bad Habits
In the last article, we discussed how to quit bad habits. This included methods like talking to a therapist. Talking to a therapist can help us rewire our brains and form good habits, rather than defaulting to habits that aren’t serving us. In the last article, we also discussed other methods like replacing bad habits with something else, changing your routine, and talking with those around you.
Let’s Dispell Some Myths
How long does it take to form a habit? There are a lot of different numbers floating around out there . A popular timeframe is 21 days, but this isn’t rooted in science. In fact, the science demonstrates a wide range that varies per person: 18–254 days. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones, writes about the seminal 2009 study by Dr. Phillippa Lally that showed this range. The average of all study participants’ days to habit mastery came to 66.
It’s helpful to remember Lally’s study on habits when you’re working on a new habit. With unrealistic expectations, it’d be easy to get discouraged if you were looking at day 30 in your habit formation journey and didn’t feel it taking root. With this study in mind, you can rest assured that there’s nothing wrong with you—habits just take a while.
Progress, Not Perfection
Clear goes on to note that the study proves habit formation doesn’t require a perfect practice record. A couple of missed opportunities to reinforce the habit don’t have a long-term effect on your habit adoption if you stick with it over time.
Creating a New Habit
To establish a good habit, a few things need to happen:
#1 Identify the Good Habits You Want to Adopt
What are the good habits you want to implement in your life? They might include an exercise regimen, a healthy diet, maintaining good relationships, establishing a consistent schedule, or anything else that could benefit the quality of your life. Start by listing the good habits you wish to implement in your life.
#2 Start Small
When we want to make change happen in our lives, our initial instinct is to think big. We imagine our ideal life and, instead of planning out baby steps to get there, we may try to jump straight into that ideal life. We may set specific time frames and restrictions around when these new habits need to be established. This tendency can be dangerous.
Thinking on too grand a scale can cause us to experience burnout very quickly. Think of it as muscle development. If your goal is to bench 200 lbs and you can currently bench 110 lbs, your best option is not to stroll into the gym and try 200 lbs tomorrow. You have to build up your strength incrementally over time in order to reach your goal or you might really hurt yourself. Similarly, we cannot take on too much too quickly when it comes to creating habits. The life you want requires “muscles” like strong new neural pathways and emotional and mental determination—muscles that can only develop with practice. For this reason, it is important to start small. Start with one good habit at a time and build from there. By limiting our focus to developing one habit at a time, we’re better able to do the necessary practice.
#3 Practice Persistence
The most common reason people do not start a good habit is that they were not successful on their first attempt. If you start a new habit and fail (whether on day 3 or day 39), do not give up. Keep working hard, keep trying—practice is the key to starting a good habit. To make the new habit’s neural pathway your brain’s preferred option, you have to reinforce it through lots of practice in every situation where you want it to be your default. Say you want to establish a habit of doing all the dishes after dinner each day. You’ll need to be very intentional about doing dishes every night. Time after time, the cue, or trigger, of finishing dinner needs to be followed by the choice and action of doing the dishes.
If you are eager to start a good habit and do not know where to start, a therapist can be an excellent resource. Click through to learn more about behavioral health therapists in your area who can help you establish good habits and build the life you want.
For more in this series, see
The Power of Habits, Part 2: Leaving Habits Behind
The Power of Habits, Part 3: How to Form a Good Habit
Clear, J. (2020, February 04). How long does it take to form a Habit? Backed by science. Retrieved March 16, 2021, from https://jamesclear.com/new-habit
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