How to Make or Break a Habit
Three years ago Sunday, I gave up caffeine as joke for lent. 40 days later, I came to the decision to never to go back. Last year, I decided to do more of the things that I enjoy; travelling, reading, video-gaming, stuff I never had time for when I was sleeping in a bed covered in heavy literature, and half-written essays. This year, I’m trying to eat a wider variety of foods, and I’m religiously filling in a diary page, every night. So, if you’re reading this article, know that its writer feels your pain. No, seriously. I’m not an expert, but I have learnt a lot over the last 5ish years, and so I thought I’d share how I make or break a habit in the hopes it’ll make life a little bit simpler for you.
1. Ignore the 21 day rule – In the 1950s there was a plastic surgeon called Dr. Maxwell Maltz, who many claim produced a study showing it takes 21 days for a person to pick up a new habit. In truth, what the good doctor uncovered was that it takes a MINIMUM of 21 days to replace an old concept with a new one, whether that be a behaviour change, or adjusting to a new nose. The average is actually more like 2 months (Lally et al.). However, the fact is that how long it takes shouldn’t matter at all. If you want to change your behaviour, you need to be willing to keep it up indefinitely. Telling yourself that you only have to last so long, will only make it more difficult to keep going when 2 months role by and you’re still finding it hard to keep your pace.
2. Choose wisely – As I discovered last year, it’s all very well wanting to learn to speak French, but if you have no reason to learn it, your brain is going to strain to retain it. An ideal habit to make is one that is genuinely going to benefit your life. An ideal habit to break is one that is damaging, mentally or physically, to yourself or others. For instance, I gave up caffeine because I realised that a lot of my nervousness was due to being off my face on 3-4 cups of extra strong coffee, everyday. If you’re going to change your behaviour, you need proper motivation, so think about exactly what it is that you want to get out of this change.
3. Enjoy your honeymoon – There will be a short period of time in which changing your behaviour feels great and easy. This can range from a couple of minutes (quitting smoking, taking up jogging) to a month (healthy eating, keeping a journal), so make the most of it. Enjoy it. Make as many positive memories of you keeping up your new behaviour as you can. They will come in handy (when you’re standing in the dairy isle, staring at a double shot Starbucks espresso can, salivating like a dog in heat).
4. Freshen up – When you hit a rough patch, you’ll need to remind yourself of why you’re doing what you’re doing. This is where that all important motivation can turn into a blessing, or a curse, depending on how strong it is. But reminding yourself may not be enough. You may also need to find fresh ways to shove it in your face. I have recently taken up starting everyday by writing a positive post-it, whether it be a famous quote, or just something someone’s said to me. I then stick it to the mirror, and read it back when I go to bed. This way I start and end my day on a positive note, encouraging myself to keep up the good work. You could also try achievement lists, mantras, or even simple incentivising (i.e. I will buy these boots if I write everyday this week).
The art of making, and the art of breaking a habit are tough to master, and I know that at the grand old age of 22, I’m nowhere near becoming a black belt. I am currently still trying to fit in a few minutes of writing every day, and while my diary remains up-to-date, my novel cries out for the attention it deserves (soon, my precious, soon). Needless to say, I’d love to hear what you guys do to help change your behaviours. How do you stay motivated? How do you make or break a habit?