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Guide to Creating Good Habits and Breaking the Bad Ones

3, 2, 1 ... Happy New Year! “This is the year I am finally going to form new habits.” And then months go by and you haven’t achieved any of your resolutions. The question is, why is it so hard to form habits? Habits are tasks and behaviors that you do and repeat on a day to day basis, sometimes subconsciously where your habits have been formed for years. This could include brushing your teeth when you wake up, skipping breakfast, or even watching Netflix when you get home.

In my experience, there are usually 3 main types of habits. The first are positive habits, these habits help you have a healthy lifestyle, they could range from drinking enough water to decluttering in order to stay organized. The second are negative habits, these habits often fall into your “habit loop” subconsciously and it slowly becomes part of your routine. This could include picking your nails or simply procrastinating. Lastly are habits that you don’t even notice, as they are usually formed when you were younger (Soots, 2015). Some examples include brushing your teeth in the morning or eating lunch at 12.

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The truth is forming positive habits and breaking negative ones are hard, and the difficulty has only been amplified given the pandemic, a time where you may feel unmotivated to change. The reality is, it’s hard to maintain a productive schedule and good habits! The American Journal of Psychology defines a habit as "A more or less fixed way of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through previous repetition of a mental experience." (Andrews, B. R., 1903) Meaning to form new habits you have to be able to break your “habit loop” and have continual repetition for one habit. Forming a habit relates to the French proverb, Rome was not built in day.

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One of the biggest reasons why it is strenuous to form a habit is because it takes a great deal of time and dedication. A study from Philloppa Lally and her research team at the University College London proved that on average it takes “18 to 254 days” to form a habit depending on the person’s behaviour and how difficult the habit is itself (Lally, et al, 2009).Therefore if you want to run 2 kilometres every morning after you wake up, it might take 3 months of repetition for this to become a subconscious behaviour that you perform everyday. However, it might take 1 month of drinking 2L of water a day for that to become a habit. 

Typically when you're trying to form a new routine, it's usually replacing a negative habit. Forming a habit takes persistence as it's easier to continue with the the cycle you're used to which requires little effort. According to the National Institute of Health, pleasure based habits are harder to break as “enjoyable behaviors can prompt your brain to release a chemical called dopamine.”(News in Health, 2012) To add on, “dopamine is the reward that strengthens the habit and creates the craving to do it again.”(Frothingham, 2019) Thus when you try to stop a negative habit, you will likely end up craving it again due to the prior release of dopamine.

Now since I’ve explained a bit about the science on habits, how do we actually effectively form habits?

  • Understand how to form a habit. You have to understand that it takes a long time to form habits and it's by repeating the same action everyday. It may seem unnecessary at the start but try to focus on the long term reward.

  • Awareness. Try to recognize when you have a habits you want to change, you have to be able to identify the problem to solve it

  • Create attainable habits. Make sure the habits you choose to pursue are reasonable and that the habit you choose is within your reach.

  • Systems not goals. It's more effective to focus on systems rather than goals (like the famous quote; It’s about the journey rather than the destination), if you focus on the goal, when you achieve your goal you often revert back to your old negative, which defeats the purpose of forming a habit.

  • Remind yourself! Often times it’s hard to remember to complete your habit, try to hold yourself accountable by setting reminders, creating a habit tracker or just setting an alarm to remind yourself.

  • No such thing as perfection. It’s okay if you forget to stay focused for a day, no one is perfect. Just make sure you hold yourself accountable and try to continue to do that habit the next day. It is also important to note that sometimes the habits you try to do are not for you, don’t be stressed if something doesn't work for you.

Examples of Positive Habits

  • Physical activity instead of going on social media. Getting your exercise in is another great way to release dopamine (which makes you happy) instead of scrolling through social media, how about you try a new sport! Learning a new sport is an enjoyable way to release dopamine and stay healthy.

  • Morning routine instead of a Irregular sleep schedule. Try having the same morning routine everyday, this means waking up around the same time, getting ready, eating breakfast, writing to do lists, etc. Having something to look forward to in the morning not only helps you wake up and sleep on time but can help with maintaining a healthy sleep schedule.

  • Declutter your space on a daily basis instead of procrastinating. You can often feel unmotivated when you're in a disorganized space. Cleaning your work space can give you a boost of motivation to get work done.

  • Drink water instead of soft drinks. Drinking enough water a day is an asset to your health and can decrease some health risks like kidney stones, bladder cancer, and acne. (Gunnars, 2020). In addition, soft drinks are not good for you on a daily basis, the risks can “range from increased chances of tooth decay to a higher risk of heart disease and metabolic disorders like type 2 diabetes.”

It's definitely difficult to break and form habits, but once you persevere, it is so satisfying! Whether you want to become more organized, or drink more water, it's all within your reach. Forming a habit takes persistence because we become so comfortable in our current routines. In a global pandemic, it can be easy and sometimes healthy to fall into comfort. But with school starting across the country, let's work together to create positive habits and routines. Start now so within 18 to 254 days, you'll be on the right track. But remember, there's no such thing as perfection. Everyone's different and we all work at out own pace.

References :

Soots, L. (2015, August 30). What are habits? Retrieved 2020, from https://www.thepositivepsychologypeople.com/habits-to-happiness/

Andrews, B. R. (1903). Habit. The American Journal of Psychology, 14(2), 121–149. https://doi.org/10.2307/1412711

Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C.H.M., Potts, H.W.W. and Wardle, J. (2010), How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol., 40: 998-1009. doi:10.1002/ejsp.674

News In Health. (2012, January). Breaking Bad Habits. Retrieved 2020, from https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2012/01/breaking-bad-habits

Frothingham, S. (2019, October 24). How Long Does It Actually Take to Form A New Habit? Retrieved September 22, 2020, from https://www.healthline.com/health/how-long-does-it-take-to-form-a-habit

Gunnars, K. (2020, April 21). How Much Water Should You Drink Per Day? Retrieved September 22, 2020, from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/how-much-water-should-you-drink-per-day

Article Contributors :

Article Author : Kelley Liang

Article Editors : Edie Whittington, Stephanie Sahadeo