The Science of Habit-Forming
Many of us are familiar with the disappointment of a failed New Year’s resolution. Only 35% of Americans who made one in 2020 kept at it until the end of the year, and a study from 2015 found that 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by mid-February.
Since healthy lifestyle choices are a key part of preventing or managing many chronic conditions, it’s important to continue working toward your health and wellness goals, no matter how frustrating it may feel. And while giving up old habits or cultivating new ones is never easy, you have more control over this process than it may seem.
Habits don’t start from nothing. They are a three-part psychological process of triggers, actions, and rewards, often referred to as the habit loop. This process can unfold passively, as if you’re on autopilot when engaging in many familiar behaviors. But fortunately for those with new habit goals, the habit loop can also be a more intentional rewiring of your brain to turn aspirations into lasting change. Here’s how.
The habit loop
As humans, we’re wired to search for feel-good experiences (and quick hits of dopamine, the brain’s feel-good chemical). Habits are born when the brain recognizes a connection between action and reward. It stores this information in a region of the brain called the basal ganglia. Unlike the prefrontal cortex, the area of your brain that makes conscious decisions, what happens in the basal ganglia is largely beyond your conscious control. That’s why it can be so challenging to break an old habit: sometimes you don’t even realize you’re doing it.
The habit loop consists of three parts.
- Cue — a stimulus, like a certain location, smell, person, or emotional state, sends the brain into autopilot and motivates you to act.
- Action — you then perform a repeated behavior associated with the cue.
- Reward — you experience a sense of pleasure or relief as a result of the action, reinforcing the link between cue and action (and perpetuating the habit loop).
It’s easy to see how unhealthy behaviors might emerge from this cycle, but with some effort, the habit loop can result in healthy changes, too. You can replace a bad habit with something more positive, like reading a book, going for a walk, or meditating instead of smoking or overdoing screen time. Or you can use this knowledge of how the brain works to develop a new habit without giving anything up. Either way, you’re more likely to find success if you connect a positive habit with an immediate reward, like linking physical activity with your favorite song or podcast.
In addition to considering the connection between your default behaviors and rewards, the following tactics can set you up for success as you commit to your physical and mental well-being.
Start small and aim for incremental progress
It’s admirable to have big ambitions for your fitness routine, but it often takes time to build up your strength. Sometimes the disappointment of not arriving at a goal quickly enough is what causes people to set down their goals and resolutions altogether. Many health experts suggest starting with a small and specific action rather than the end state. Rather than focusing on running a half marathon, try to run a little more than you did the day before. The same principle applies to other habits like meditating or reading instead of social media scrolling.
At the same time, taking it slow doesn’t mean being inconsistent. Studies show that it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to form a new habit, and the best way to establish a routine is to actually do it. If your goal is to be more physically active, try doing a small, gentle exercise every day — a certain number of jumping jacks or push-ups, or a quick walk — and building up from there once you’ve got a foundation in place.
Fold your new habit into an existing one
Since we’re all creatures of habit, there are probably many patterns in your day that can help you cultivate your new routine. For instance, try meditating after your morning cup of coffee, or going for a walk after your lunch break.
This approach is referred to as habit stacking, and it uses our tendency towards autopilot — and the habit loop fundamentals — to our advantage. Your new habit will quickly become linked to what the brain already knows, increasing your chances of success.
Make it easy
While change is never easy, you can make it easier by removing the obstacles that stand between you and your health goals. So rather than trying to muster up more will power, add a visual cue to your new routine, or remove a preparation step. This could mean packing your bag for your morning workout and leaving it by the door before going to bed, choosing an exercise you can easily do from home, or putting heart-healthy snacks in a visible spot on your kitchen counter. Whatever you’re trying to achieve, there’s probably a way to minimize the time and effort it requires.
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This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.