New Year, Same Habits: How to break those pesky bad habits

While we are all trying to shake off the year that was, many of us are trying to shake off some new bad habits we picked up during quarantine—or ones that were exacerbated by the pandemic lockdown. 

A tradition as ingrained into the fabric of America as Christmas itself, the annual New Year’s Resolution began anew on January 1.

After a bitter 2020, Americans are trying to get the taste out of their mouth (or just get taste back period), and have doubled down on their New Year’s resolutions. 

I hate to be the bearer of bad news after a year filled with it, but the “21 Day Rule” to build a healthy habit may actually be longer…much longer. 

Where does the magic twenty-one days come from? It originated from plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz in his extremely popular 1960 book: Psycho-Cybernetics. He noticed his patients seemed to take about twenty-one days to get used to their new faces. 

However, according to a 2009 study in the European Journal of Social Psychology, the amount of time it takes to form a habit isn’t so cut-and-dry. 

According to the study, researchers studied the new habits of 96 people over a span of 12 weeks. They found that it actually takes around 66 days on average to form a new habit. But that’s not all: times varied widely from 18 to a massive 254 days. 

Considering it takes an average of 66 days to form a new habit, It’s easy to take this news as discouraging considering that most resolutions are abandoned by February. 

On the flip side, if you stick with it, the habit will become second nature to you. 

Breaking a habit and forming a new one are closely linked. 

Psychologist Timothy Pychyl explains the similarities between the two: “Breaking a habit really means establishing a new habit, a new pre-potent response. The old habit or pattern of responding is still there (a pattern of neuron responses in the brain), but it is less dominant (less potent).”

It is for this reason that “white-knuckling” a bad habit usually results in failure and relapse.  

Neuroscientist Elliot Berkman summed it up as such: “It’s much easier to start doing something new than to stop doing something habitual without a replacement behavior.” 

Motivation is also a key factor. Intrinsic (self) motivation helps break/build a habit much better than extrinsic (outside) motivation. 

Berkman continued: “People who want to kick their habit for reasons that are aligned with their personal values will change their behavior faster than people who are doing it for external reasons such as pressure from others.” 

And according to psychology professor Susan Krauss Whitbourne, there are certain circumstances that allow you to break a habit immediately—but they are usually traumatic: “In extreme cases, the habit can be broken instantly, such as if you happen to become violently ill when you inhale cigarette smoke or nearly get hit by a bus when texting and walking.”

The two key factors to successfully breaking a habit: replacement and motivation. Replace the bad habit with a good one—i.e., jogging instead of smoking a cigarette—and having the right motivation. For example, you may want to lose an extra 30lbs before your wedding in June. 

Berkman ends on a message of hope that we all need for 2021: “Longtime habits are literally entrenched at the neural level, so they are powerful determinants of behavior…the good news is that people are nearly always capable of doing something else when they’re made aware of the habit and are sufficiently motivated to change.”

And on that note, I hope you achieve all your 2021 New Years Resolutions. I’m planning on it. 

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Source: Science Alert

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