The short answer is yes.
The caveat is, don’t expect it to be easy or quick. To achieve change, firstly you have to want it and then make the conscious decision using our prefrontal cortex and working memory to bring it about.
That’s because our habit centre (the basal ganglia) lies in our subconscious. Often we are not aware of our habits and the amount to which we are dependent on them.
What we think are decisions we have made are often habits. It has been estimated that around 40% of all our daily activities are habitual: from how we get out of bed in the morning, to how we get dressed or brush our teeth. Without habitual behaviour our days would be long and exhausting from having to engage our conscious thought to each and every activity.
So habits are very useful, especially on those routine items. But what about those “other” habits, you know, like smoking or ducking into Macca’s on the way home for a quick feed because you’re hungry and tired and can’t face having to prepare something to eat yourself. We’re often very good at justifying our bad habits, even when we publically announce we would like to be rid of them!
Charles Duhigg in his book “The Power of Habit” outlines how habits form and how to create new habits. It’s a great book and easy to read.
Knowing more about how the brain creates habits and more importantly why we resist change so much is important. Because if you have ever tried to lose weight, do more exercise or eat more healthily and failed we can feel demoralised and sometimes give up.
Increased brain awareness is the key to enhanced success around behavioural change.
At the American Psychologist’s 122nd Annual Convention Wendy Wood discussed the neurology of habits and outlined three principles required to change habitual behaviour.
1. Create a window of opportunity
Sometimes the opportunity to derail existing habits can crop up, such as when changing jobs, moving house or starting a new relationship. The opportunity is in the form of pattern disruption and to introduce only small increments of change at a time.
2. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Yes, practice does make perfect. In relation to habits it is in the form of reinforcing new neural pathways. Repetition strengthens synaptic connections and reduces the amount of cognitive energy required to trigger the new response. It’s just like when you first learn to drive. Initially it takes your brain a lot of effort to remember all the sequences of events required, but by the time you successfully pass your test, your brain has successfully habituated much of the behaviour. You no longer have to think about how you start the car and reverse it out of the driveway.
How long does it take to create a new habit? Some people will suggest how you can create new habits within 21 or 28 days or less. The reality is “it depends” on the complexity of the new habit and how entrenched the previous habit is.
But it could be anywhere between 15 to 254 days.
So, if you haven’t achieved success as quickly as you had hoped, don’t be hard on yourself, it could be that your new habit is going to be one of the trickier ones, such as giving up smoking.
3. Invent a new cue.
Our cues lead to an associated thought or behaviour. Changing habits requires a new cue to lead you towards the desired behaviour and naturally it needs to be in the form of a stable context.
For example, if you want to start drinking more water put a glass of water by your bed so that the first thing you do in the morning before getting up, is to drink it. Achieving those small increments of success is what motivates you to continue to pursue your goals.
Have you had any major challenges introducing change into your life?
What did you noticed worked, or didn’t work and what did you learn about yourself in the process?
D. T. Neal, W. Wood, M. Wu, D. Kurlander. The Pull of the Past: When Do Habits Persist Despite Conflict With Motives? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2011; 37 (11): 1428 DOI: 10.1177/0146167211419863