We’ve all got them, but how do they form?…

HABITS are present in most individuals whether good, bad or very annoying! But how do these habits form? And just how long does it take for them to develop?

Positive habits which individuals may be interested to adjust to could be taking up some form of daily exercise, eating more fruits and vegetables or drinking more water. However, the length of time in which this new activity takes to become an automatic action is arguably very difficult to decide upon.

Lally et al (2009) found that on average, after 66 days, participants’ became accustomed to their new activity and at this point found that their behaviour had become as automatic as it could be. It was also noted from this study that smaller changes within an individuals’ lifestyle (such as drinking more water) would feel more automatic after fewer days compared to a larger change, such as completing 30 minutes of physical activity everyday (Lally et al, 2009). Yet, that appears to be quite obvious. This study therefore suggests that habits can take up to 2 months to form if they are major lifestyle changes or significantly less time (around 20 days) if only minor.

So could these findings suggest that bad habits could take a similar time to be reversed?

I believe undesirable habits such as biting fingernails could be harder to break and would take much longer to reverse compared to developing a more positive habit. This is because certain factors such as: the length of time the habit has been carried out and the frequency of the habit are very important. For example, if a person had bitten their fingernails on many occasions, everyday since they were young, I believe it would be very difficult to reverse the habit and would therefore take much longer than 2 months to overcome.

 

Lally, P., Van Jaarsveld, C., Potts, H., Wardle, J. 2009. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998-1009. DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.674

 

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About Nathalie Lauren Joyce

19. First year @ Bangor University. Psychology Blogger.

4 responses to “We’ve all got them, but how do they form?…

  1. I believe that habits that you have had for a long amount of time can take a long amount of time to overcome. I also believe that it is down to the will-power of the individual themselves, meaning that a person with a higher will-power is more likely to stop their bad habit than someone how has less will power.
    After reading “Breaking ‘bad habits’: a dynamical perspective on habit formation and change” I have learnt that most habits have become an atomised thing that we do without even realising that we do it. For example when you get out of your car you lock it without even realising that you have done so, meaning that you later question yourself if you really did lock your car.

    The best way to break a bad habit such as driving to the shops instead of cycling would be to make driving to the mall impossible by closing the car parks, the bad habit would then have to be broken and replaced with a good one such as cycling. Another effective strategy involves avoiding the situation: people trying to overcome an addiction should avoid the circumstances in which they performed the behaviour a lot. Changing the outcomes of a habit can also be beneficial: putting a nasty tasting substance to your nails will make the short satisfaction of biting your nails become an unbearable process.

    As well as will-power there are lots of methods that people can use to break habits, whether they be good or bad. They just need to look for the ways in which to break their habits for good.

    Jager, W. (2003) Breaking ’bad habits’: a dynamical perspective on habit formation and change. in: L. Hendrickx, W. Jager, L. Steg, (Eds.) Human Decision Making and Environmental Perception. Understanding and Assisting Human Decision Making in Real-life Settings. Liber Amicorum for Charles Vlek. Groningen: University of Groningen.

  2. This is an interesting topic to look into as habits have the ability to make people feel guilty if they are not performed (not going to the gym) or may even occur subconsciously (fidgeting when nervous). Looking into breaking the pattern of habitual behaviour is also an extremely interesting factor. An interesting study which I have found, monitored the habits of students who were moving to a new university (Wood et al., 2005). The students’ habits (exercising, eating etc.) were monitored one month before and after in order to see whether the change in environment and comfort would change their routinely habits which I’m sure that we can all relate to! The results found that the majority of the students’ habits actually became non-existent and that new habits had been formed in their place. These changes were suggested to be because the removal of automatic cues (eg. parents making dinner and now having to cook for yourself) for well-practiced responses caused the disruption in habitual behaviour. Another reason suggested was that the large change of circumstances actually put the habit’s significance/value in question to the person (eg. watching lots of television may be seen as less enjoyable to socialising with new people).

    Wood, W., Tam, L., & Witt, M. Guerrero. (2005). Changing Circumstances, Disrupting Habits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(6), 918-933. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.88.6.918

  3. It’s certainly reasonable to infer that the longer you’ve had a habit, the longer it will take to break. When reading through your blog, I automatically thought about the question of motivation. My feeling was that if a person were more motivated to break a habit (if it was a personal goal for example) they would be more successful and it would take less time. Recent evidence by Neal, Wood, Labrecque and Lally (2011) found this to be the case for moderately strong habits. However, they also found that strong habits were relatively unaffected by current goals which would corroborate your theory.

    Reference

    Neal, D. T., Wood, W., Labrecque, J. S., & Lally, P. (2011). How habits guide behaviour? Perceived and actual triggers of habits in everyday life. Journal of experimental social psychology 48(2), 492-498.

  4. Pingback: Phillippa Lally – How Are Habits Formed

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