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The Psychology Behind Lasting Habits

Four runners smile and run together

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” - Aristotle

With the turn of the calendar, many of us made resolutions and set goals for what we want to accomplish during the new year. When we do this, we subconsciously take advantage of what is known as the “fresh start effect,” when our brains automatically relegate past imperfections to a different era.

In a fascinating study by the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, researchers Hengchen Dai, Katherine L. Milkman and Jason Riis define the new year as one of many “temporal landmarks” used to instigate positive lifestyle changes. The study found that positive behavioral shifts are more likely to occur after a temporal landmark is reached.

Our brains are intrinsically wired to set goals and create the corresponding habits on Mondays, the first day of the month and on the first of January, etc.

“The popularity of New Year’s resolutions suggest that people are more likely to tackle their goals immediately following salient temporal landmarks,” the study says. “This little-researched phenomenon has the potential to help people overcome important willpower problems that often limit goal attainment.”

A woman stretches her arms before her run

Knowing the importance of temporal landmarks and the fresh start effect is just the first step in creating long-lasting, healthy habits. Understanding the interplay of the complex psychological mechanisms at work when creating habits can help set the stage for success.

When a temporal landmark is reached, clearly defining your goals is crucial. Using the S.M.A.R.T. method, you should set goals that are Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Bound. Instead of telling yourself “My goal is to run 3 days a week” you should say “My goal is to run for at least 20 minutes on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for the next three months.” Creating a S.M.A.R.T. goal is an imperative first step.

In his book, The Power of Habit, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and best-selling author Charles Duhigg breaks down habit formation into three simple steps: a cue, an action and a reward. From a psychological perspective, our brains receive a stimulus from our environment (cue), engage in a specific behavior pattern (action) based on the stimulus which results in a cocktail of chemicals that make us feel good (reward).

The key to creating healthy habits lies in your ability to intentionally manipulate your environment to encourage a specific behavior to earn the desired outcome. This is why you often hear of runners who lay out their workout clothes before going to sleep so it’s the first thing they see in the morning, or packing a healthy lunch to avoid snacking on junk food all day.

Clothes laid out before a run

The importance of controlling your environment cannot be understated, as it leads to a phenomenon called “associative learning.” An article in the British Journal of General Practice, entitled “Making Health Habitual,” suggests three different phases of habit formation:

  1. The initiation phase, during which the new behavior and the context in which it will be done are selected.
  2. The learning phase, where automaticity develops due to the repeated behavior in the chosen context.
  3. The stability phase, at which point the habit has formed, its strength has plateaued and it persists over time with minimal effort or deliberation.

You can employ the practice of “associative learning” in order to create sustainable, positive and healthy changes.

“Within psychology, ‘habits’ are defined as actions that are triggered automatically in response to contextual cues that have been associated with their performance,” the article states. “For example, automatically washing hands (action) after using the toilet (contextual cue), or putting on a seatbelt (action) after getting into the car (contextual cue).”

Years and years of research tells us that repeating a specific action in a specific context leads to associative learning, which strengthens the automaticity of the desired behavior. This is important, because habits need to persist during times of low motivation in order to create long-lasting, sustainable behavior change.

“Once initiation of the action is transferred to external cues, dependence on conscious attention of motivational processes is reduced,” researchers say. “Therefore habits are likely to persist even after conscious motivation or interest dissipates.”

It is easy to “fall off the wagon” if you are constantly trying to create habits through sheer mental willpower, rather than using your energy to create an environment where those habits happen at a subconscious level. Rather than try to simply muscle through the decision-making process, it is easier and much more effective to focus your efforts on automating the desired behavior.

So how do you get started on creating the perfect environment? The concept of “chaining” explains how we develop a sequence of events, or behavior. For example, you might wake up every morning and walk into the bathroom to brush your teeth.

Now if your desired habit is to start flossing every morning, it has been proven to be most effective to tie the new goal into an existing “chain.” Better yet, implement the desired behavior at the END of a “chain” of other behaviors, so you have more cues to prime you for the specific act. For example, you wake up, you walk to the bathroom, you brush your teeth and THEN you floss.

A man runs with his child in a stroller

A series of “chains” forms a “system.” Author and entrepreneur James Clear is a huge proponent of a systems-based approach. Clear explains the systems-first mentality in his New York Times bestselling book Atomic Habits.

“Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress,” he says. “A handful of problems arise when you spend too much time thinking about your goals and not enough time designing your systems.”

“Goals can provide direction and even push you forward in the short-term, but eventually a well-designed system will always win,” he adds. “Having a system is what matters. Committing to the process is what makes the difference.”

While it might only take a few minutes to create your ideal S.M.A.R.T. Goal, designing your systems to create automation does not happen overnight. So how long does it take to form a habit? The answer, as with many things, is “it depends.”

A quick Google search will tell you anywhere between 21 and 66 days. The 66-day benchmark has a good bit of research behind it, but it can only speak to that average based on a specific study, with specific individuals attempting to create a specific habit. Because we are all different people in different environments with different goals, the answer is much more nuanced.

On a macro-level, the commonly accepted answer is that it takes between 18 and 254 days to develop a habit. This is why an automated, systems-based approach is most likely to succeed...it’s hard to maintain motivation and willpower for 254 consecutive days!

In order to accomplish the goals you have set for yourself in the new year, remember to clearly define them, understand the relationship of “cue, action and reward” and create systems and environments to facilitate the desired behavioral chains.

By Timothy Lyman. Timothy Lyman is a health and wellness professional specializing in program development and management. He is a Certified Personal Trainer through the American Council on Exercise and a Performance Enhancement Specialist through the National Academy of Sports Medicine.

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