Humans are creatures of habit. With the start of 2019 behind us and with Chinese New Year around the corner, now is the time that many people take a hard look at their habits to determine which ones should stay and which ones should go.
To assist in this annual process, here is some basic information about the human behaviour of making and breaking habits:
There’s no right or wrong time to break a bad habit
Many people latch onto significant dates, such as the beginning of a new year, an anniversary, or a birthday, to hit “reset” and let go of unhealthy routines. However, in reality these dates are actually quite arbitrary.
The very moment you realise that certain behaviour is holding you back from living your best life or is having a negative impact on you, that’s the time to begin considering letting go of the bad habit and replacing it with a more positive, healthier one.
New habits take time to form
Know this fact, and go easy on yourself if (and—likely—when) you relapse by falling back into old ways. There’s an old assumption that it takes 21 days to form a habit. More recent research from University College London, however, suggests that it actually takes an average of 66 days to form a new habit. This is more than two months!
So don’t expect change to happen magically overnight on the date you decide to engage in a healthier behaviour. Retraining your brain (a process enabled by neuroplasticity) is absolutely possible; it just takes a bit of time and effort. Remain committed and stick with it. Once the change is made, it can then become automatic and you’re quite likely to be able to maintain it.
Know your values and engage in behaviours aligned with those values
Regarding human motivation for change, there are two basic components: Intrinsic (internal) factors within the self, such as a genuine value or core desire, and extrinsic (external) factors from outside the self, such as friends, family, culture, etc. Research shows that intrinsic factors are more powerful motivators of change than extrinsic ones.
So, being genuine in your desire to change makes a huge impact in the amount of effort that you actually put into a change such as making a new, healthy habit or breaking an old, unhealthy habit. And the more effort you put into change, the more likely that change will be successful and enduring for the long-term.
Armed with the above information, you can better understand how we make changes regarding habits in our lives. You can decide to break a habit at any time you choose; just remember that replacing it with a new one can take an average of 66 days. Understand that this is a process, not a one-off event. Get started on this journey towards your better self, and you’ll be surprised at how much change is actually possible!
Dr. Michael Eason is a psychologist and US licensed therapist practising at MindnLife in Central, Hong Kong.