Whether or not we see ourselves as living collections of our habits, we know from experience that, once formed, our habits are not as flexible as we would like them to be.
“We are what we do repeatedly,” Aristotle said. This truth could encapsulate valuable information about how we can initiate lasting changes in our behaviour patterns.
Our whole life is an agglomeration of habits “systematically organized for our weal or woe” says William James, who is considered the father of American psychology. Whenever we witness remarkable changes or, on the contrary, the illogical persistence of a toxic habit, we tend to tie the results to the protagonists’ willpower resources. However, there are experts who advise us not to bet everything on willpower.
Is willpower the only fuel for change?
Choosing the healthiest option every time is a battle of attrition that is difficult to win by relying exclusively on willpower. This is the opinion of psychologist Roy Baumeister, who has spent years studying how people cope with temptation when they want to abandon bad habits.
Genetic inheritance could make a difference in terms of volitional resources, but, in the end, what decides the fate of the game is the efficiency with which we use this depletable energy.
Our failure stems precisely from a poor understanding of how the will works: if we were aware that it is a limited resource, we would not aim, for instance, at adopting several resolutions simultaneously.
Our habits‒our allies or our enemies?
People with enviable self-control have learned how to automate those behaviours that make it easier to achieve their goals.
Every day we put dozens of minor activities on autopilot. The way we start the day, the way we prepare our meals, park the car, water the plants or put the children to sleep becomes a routine. Habits are a clever trick that our brains have developed to help us be more efficient in what we do. The value of habits lies in the fact that they give the brain freedom to deal with other tasks, which involve a higher degree of control.
On the other hand, habits that have already been built without knowing how they were formed show that shaping a habit is not, after all, as difficult a task as it might seem. In this case, why does the formation of good habits drag on indefinitely (at least for some)? One of the reasons why lasting change is really difficult is that we tend to go back to our original habits whenever we face periods of stress or fatigue in maintaining the new behaviour, researcher Russel Poldrack says.
How long does it take to form a habit?
The idea that a new habit is formed in 21 days is just a myth that distorts the claims of a popular book written in the 1960s by plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz. Studying his patients, Maltz noticed that they needed about 21 days to get used to their new appearance. Also, the observations on his own behavioural changes led him to conclude that the same time span represents the minimum duration for the formation of a habit. His findings were published in Psycho-Cybernetics, a book that has become a bestseller and from which people have wrongfully concluded that the 21-day period is universally valid for the formation of a habit.
In reality, the period in which a habit is established is significantly longer, according to a study by British researchers: on average, this takes 66 days, individual times ranging from 18 to 245 days.
Whenever we replace one habit with another, the old habit does not disappear, but ceases to be dominant, as the neural connections developed by the new habit become stronger.
The speed with which we get rid of an inappropriate habit is inversely proportional to its age. “Longtime habits are literally entrenched at the neural level, so they are powerful determinants of behavior” says neurologist Elliot Berkman, however, stressing that change is possible when people have the necessary motivation and understand the power of habit.
Making habits work to our advantage
Sometimes the better is the enemy of the good, and this cannot be emphasized enough when it comes to change. We fail to build good habits when the pace or magnitude of change exceeds our present resources, but also when we do not understand the mechanisms of change.
Routine stratification, which involves linking a new habit to an existing one, is one of the winning strategies, according to researcher BJ Fogg, who also provided a simple personal example: he managed to do 80 pushups a day after tying this new habit to going to the bathroom. Other experts emphasize the role of the environment or the entourage in the formation or development of a habit or the importance of studying the components of a habit.
Starting from the components of our habits, Charles Duhigg wrote a book that lists a series of scientific experiments, thus outlining a conceptual framework for understanding how habits are formed. There is a vicious circle through which different behaviours become habits, says Duhigg, explaining that a habit is a formula with three variables which the brain automatically executes: an indicator signal or a trigger of action; a physical, mental or emotional routine; and a reward that helps the brain decide if this loop is worth remembering.
Thus, boredom, the need to forget about problems, or the unmistakable smell of pastries near the office can be the trigger for the routine (lighting a cigarette, drinking a glass of alcohol or buying a donut), which will always be accompanied by a reward (satisfying the craving for nicotine or sugar or the feeling of escape that alcohol delivers).
We can intervene on each element of the usual loop, but the golden rule of change, according to Duhigg, is to identify the trigger signal and the reward, and then to change the routine.
In order to build a new habit, the rewards coming from it need to be greater than those of the habit we want to unlearn, says Professor Wendy Wood, noting that important and unexpected rewards stimulate the release of dopamine, engraving in one’s memory the satisfaction of that experience and increasing the possibility of repeating it. For example, for a person who wants to exercise more, even though they don’t like moving, listening to podcasts or watching their favourite shows could make training more attractive.
The faith that prevents relapsing
More than a decade ago, researchers began to notice that the success of Alcoholics Anonymous was not just about choosing new routines. Although adding new skills worked in many cases, when faced with an intense personal crisis, many alcoholics relapsed. The secret of those who managed to remain abstinent was, according to their own statements, faith in God. In fact, 7 of the 12 steps in the recovery program mention God.
Although the focus on divine intervention has attracted criticism from experts who have argued that the organisation has become a kind of cult, a number of studies have come to a similar conclusion: faith has a major impact. The risk of relapse is lower, and recovery is safer among people who embrace spirituality. Faith, along with belonging to a community, also facilitated the recovery of people struggling with eating disorders, according to a study by researchers at the University of Miami.
These studies are an echo over time of an ancient promise: “Can plunder be taken from warriors, or captives be rescued from the fierce?[a] But this is what the Lord says: ‘Yes, captives will be taken from warriors, and plunder retrieved from the fierce; I will contend with those who contend with you, and your children I will save’” (Isaiah 49:24-25).
No matter what shape our “enemies” take—painful circumstances, enslaving habits, a numb will, or even a difficult-to-treat addiction—Christians have the promise of the “ever-present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). Dependence on this help is a routine that we should never give up.
Carmen Lăiu is a writer for ST Network and Semnele timpului.