Habits dictate a large part of not only your diet, but also your life in general.
As we’ll soon see, in order to change habits (form good ones/eliminate bad ones), you first have to understand them, which is what I’m going to show you in this article.
Introducing the Habit Loop
There are 3 main components to the habit loop: the cue, behavior (or routine), and the reward.
The cue can really be anything that prompts you to do something, it could be a noise, a feeling, a smell, etc.
Basically, the cue invokes desire in you to do something, which is the behavior. Now while the behavior stays consistent over time, the cue actually gets stronger over time as habits are formed and cemented.
Finally, there is some sort of result of that specific behavior that you consider a reward. When you experience the reward it simply reinforces the habit.
Case Study: Toothpaste
Did you know that people rarely brushed their teeth in the early 1900’s?
That is, they didn’t until Claude Hopkins came up with a way to make everyone use toothpaste on a regular basis.
As an advertiser he devised a campaign for a toothpaste-selling company that was based on the Habit Loop.
First, he used the feeling of having film on your teeth as a cue. This isn’t something that you usually notice, but I bet you just licked your teeth right now. It’s perfectly normal, but it makes the person feel like their teeth aren’t totally clean.
The campaign followed the cue of the film by promoting the use of toothpaste to clean your teeth.
Here’s the genius part, you can’t get rid of the film, it’s supposed to be there after all. Turns out that it doesn’t matter, as long as there is a reward. So what Hopkins did was manufacture a reward!
Hopkins had them add ingredients to the toothpaste that would create a pleasurable tingling sensation in the gums, giving the illusion of a cleaner mouth.
Now this isn’t to say toothpaste isn’t good, but regardless of whether toothpaste was effective or not this habit would have been formed.
Important Note: Brushing your teeth is in fact good for their long-term health, so why isn’t that the reward? In order for a behavior to be reinforced, you need to see an immediate benefit from doing it. It’s hard for your brain to know if something resulted in a reward if it takes a very long time to see it. This is extremely important for diet, and we’ll come back to this shortly.
How Long Does it Take to Form a Habit?
I mentioned earlier that cues get stronger over time as behavior is continually reinforced by the reward. For the first few times it’s not going to be very noticeable, but each time you go through the habit cycle it gets stronger.
A habit is simply a specific neural pathway. Through various studies, we know that neural pathways are strengthened during use, and are weakened when not used.
The best analogy I have heard is to compare a neural pathway to a stream of water. It can start as just a trickle, but as more water flows through it get’s bigger and stronger, until it’s an established river.
So back to the question at hand, how long does it take to form and make a strong neural pathway?
According to Dr. Maxwell Maltz’s work in 1960, published in his book Psycho-Cybernetics, about 21 days of daily use.
A little more recently, Phillipa Lally conducted a study and found that habits were formed in anywhere from 18 to 254 days. This obviously isn’t very clear, but it demonstrates that more research needs to be done. Also let me note that this was a self-reported study, and it can be difficult to determine the exact point of habit formation.
Regardless, depending on you as an individual, it could take as little as a few weeks to build a habit, or as long as 8 months. It will depend on your commitment and other personal factors that stand unknown as of now.
However, even if it takes you a while to build a strong neural pathway, remember that it isn’t an all or nothing objective. Even if the neural pathway isn’t as strong as possible, the closer you get to that point, the easier it will be to keep going. This is why at first habits often take a lot of concentrated willpower, but soon requires much less – even though some attention is still required.
Before we move on to actually changing habits, it should be noted that this all works in reverse as well. If you are quitting smoking for example, at first the pathway is really strong, but over time it gets weaker and weaker until it dries up to a trickle.
Let’s Make a Habit!
So let’s say that you want to introduce some more healthy behavior in your life through habits, start by identifying the behavior. For example, let’s use drinking more water.
You first need to establish a cue for it, ideally something unique and related to the behavior. In this case, we’ll pick a cue of excess saliva in your mouth. The neat thing is, that once you start paying attention to it and thinking about it, you will notice it much more often – just like the toothpaste example.
When you notice the cue, drink some water, and notice the immediate positive effects that it has on you. Maybe it makes your mouth feel more comfortable, relaxes you, or anything else that like about it. Simply making yourself repeat this loop through a little conscious attention will eventually reinforce it to a habit, where you don’t even have to think about it.
How About Hijacking a Habit?
Breaking a habit is similar to forming a new one, you first need to identify the cue. Note that behaviors can often have multiple cues; eating is often triggered by hunger, stress, boredom, and more.
If you have extremely strong will power, you can simply disrupt the cues you don’t want, like boredom and stress. To do so, you need to ask yourself why you are eating every time you are about to eat, if it’s because of a bad cue you need to stop yourself. This is pretty difficult to do for most people though, which is understandable given the years of habit reinforcement.
Instead what you can do is hijack the cue and insert a new behavior. For boredom in particular, a great behavior to insert is a hobby, new or old. This will help you simultaneously create a productive habit while you get rid of a bad one. They both have the same immediate reward of not being bored anymore.
How to Increase Your Chances of Success
You’ll notice that no matter what habit you are trying to form or break, there is always a degree of willpower and desire involved. The big problem is that willpower and desire can widely vary from day to day, which can slow down your progress.
There are 3 major things you can do to significantly improve your chances of forming or breaking a habit.
1. Understand the Convenience factor
I wrote a post about the convenience factor the other day. One of the basic premises is that people are more likely to do something if it’s convenient, because it takes less effort and willpower.
In order to use this to our advantage in regards to habits, make the behavior that you want to have as convenient as possible. Someone left a great comment on that article about how leaving floss on the counter-top instead of in a cabinet made it much easier to floss. If that was the habit you want to enforce, this is a great way to make it require less willpower.
Conversely, if you’re trying to break a habit, make it as difficult as you can to actually perform the behavior. While it will still take willpower, it should lessen it considerably.
2. The Buddy system
Having a few friends or a group for support can help you in times of need. This isn’t appropriate for all habits of course, but for particularly difficult ones it is worth considering. However, there is a risk with this as well, if one person in the group fails, it can place additional stress on you. You need to evaluate this option on an individual level.
3. Write it down!
Having somewhere to write down when you’ve successfully enforced a good habit or avoided a bad habit is useful. It goes back to the reward factor, and while it shouldn’t be a reward by itself, it can give you that little bit of reassurance at the end of the day. So whether it’s a journal, calendar, or checklist, have some way of noting your progress.
If you’ve gotten this far, great! You should have a good grasp on habit breaking and forming, if you have any questions let me know with a comment below.
Otherwise, I have something for you to do now to help you take action and get started applying this information.