As much as we may love to think every day is a fresh adventure, much of our lives is composed of tiny, little habits that we do every single day. Some of those moments are intentional and productive, like flossing our teeth or staying hydrated. Other habits … not so much. It may feel like it’s easier for bad habits to stick than healthy ones, but as it turns out, there’s an art to building good habits. And one easy and popular way to do that is with a little trick called habit stacking.
“Take a behaviour you do each day and attach a new desired behaviour to it,” says Bonnie Carpenter, a clinical psychologist. “Your brain builds new neurons to support the behaviours we practise daily. The more you practise a habit, the stronger the connections can become.”
There are plenty of other ways to make building new habits easier too, and the more thought you put into how you can make that happen, the better off you’ll be. Ready to break bad habits and pick up some useful ones?
How are habits formed?
“A habit is a behaviour or group of behaviours that are automatic,” says Carpenter. “They’re done with a minimum of conscious awareness, and they eventually become part of our neural pathways.” So basically, once you build a new habit, your brain will take the wheel from there.
There are differing opinions on how long it takes for a habit to form – or why some habits can be stickier than others – but the amount of time is different for different people. One thing experts do know for sure is that it doesn’t happen overnight. “Changing behaviours isn’t simple, and there is a bias that it is,” says executive coach and consultant Laurie Zorn.
What can help you form a new habit? “Becoming familiar with your habits and understanding the ones you would like to change – and the reason for these changes – will help you choose positive directions,” says Carpenter. Once you’ve identified those, that’s where you should put the effort in.
How long does it take to change a habit?
Don’t expect to build good habits overnight, or you may get discouraged. According to Carpenter, it takes about four to six weeks to create a new habit.
She says – and other experts agree – that there are three steps to habit formation:
A cue that is a trigger for automatic action, like seeing your sneakers in front of your door so you put them on to go take a walk.
Establishing a routine for this action, so doing it will eventually become automatic. So put those sneakers in front of your door at night before you go to sleep.
A reward that helps your brain decide whether or not this behaviour is worth repeating. For example, you might grab a fancy coffee at the end of your walk.
In order to form positive habits more quickly, “you need to understand these three steps and decide what changes you want to make,” Carpenter says.
Here are six areas of your life that you may want to improve with healthier habits, and the best ways to go about doing it.