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How the way we eat can change our approach to our daily lives.

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How long does it take to break a habit?

What do we know about habits? We look at the science behind habit formation to better understand why we do what we do.

If you believe you can change and you make it a habit, the change becomes real.

Charles Duhigg
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The Creation of Habit

According to Charles Duhigg, author behind the bestselling The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business, understanding the motivation and process behind habit formation is a significant step towards effecting positive change. Following scientific research, many have concluded that habits are formed for the brain to conserve energy and minimise effort. To boost productivity, the brain consolidates cues and behavioural responses into automated action. The formation of a habit starts with an environmental trigger or physical ‘cue’, that is reinforced through routine and finally, the receipt of reward. Outlining a simple neurological loop identified by MIT professors, the three-step process of cue, routine and reward is key to understanding how habits are formed.

One of the earliest examples of this simple, yet powerful dynamic in action, was demonstrated by advertising pioneer Charles Hopkins whose keen understanding of human behaviour marked him a revolutionary figure in modern advertising. Through his subtle appreciation of psychological trigger and reward, Hopkins converted radical new products like toothpaste into mainstay products in many homes. By adding menthol to toothpaste, the industrious pioneer attached cognitive reward to the physical sensation of teeth brushing. It was the cool, sharp taste of menthol that many later associated with clean teeth.

What Is a Habit

All habits begin their lives as a set of unconscious choices. It is estimated that 40 – 55% of our daily actions, although appearing as autonomous decisions, are actually the result of reinforced habitual behaviour. For Dr Heather McKee a behavioural psychologist specialising in habit formation, this behaviour is labelled ‘ contextual repetition’. As we repeatedly apply the same action to the same set of triggers, a neural pathway is created and subsequently reinforced. The continuous feedback loop of trigger and action can be identified as the birth of a habit.

How Long Does It Take To Break a Habit?

Whether it is the comfort of reward or gratification, habit loops are cycles of behaviour formed over consistent time and behavioural reinforcement. When we consider breaking a habit, is important to consider the triggers that drive a habit. “Think of it like untangling a knot” says Dr McKee, “you can’t pull either side. That just makes it tighter”. She explains, “you’ve got to look at untangling them one step at a time”. “Although the old saying of 21 days to break a habit, recent research shows it now looks more like 66 days”, says Dr McKee. This research was further substantiated by Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher at University College London, whose findings concluded it took the same amount of days for a new behaviour to become automated. With this in mind, it is clear that the process of undoing habits is one that requires patience and a systematic framework of behaviours. Dr Mckee recommends beginning the process by reducing a habit into a network of micro-habits that form them. 

“Evolution not revolution”, says life coach Raul Aparici, Faculty Lead at The School of Life. For Aparici, curiosity is one of the most effective means of understanding what triggers a habit. Once armed with this information, human behaviour can be coaxed and taught to yield to new directives. For Aparici, this goes hand-in-hand with a realistic and compassionate strategy that rewards the incremental positive changes effected along the way.

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Dr Heather McKee

Dr Heather McKee is a behavioural change specialist who runs a private clinic in central London. Visit her site here for more information.  

Charles Duhigg

Charles Duhigg is a Pulitzer-prize winning American journalist and non-fiction author. He was a reporter for The New York Times and is the author of two books on habits and productivity, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business and Smarter Faster Better. Visit his site here for more information.

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