As we all know new habits are hard to form. You may have the best intention of running every day before work and you do, for the first day or two. After that you start to make excuses, you miss a few days, you’re tired the next day and soon months have gone by since you ran. The key way to ensure that you keep doing something you want to do is to make it a habit. But how do we do this?
The good news is that we all make habits all of the time. For the majority of our waking hours we work based on habits. Habits allow us to head straight for the shower in the morning before we realise our brains have properly woken up, they allow us to make breakfast and get out of the house at the same time each morning to get to work. Without habits we would have to plan each of these activities and monitor ourselves as we did them. The advantage of having habits is that while part of our brain is engaged in automatically completing the mundane morning tasks, the rest of our brain is free to think about other, more important, things such as the complex problem that faces us in work or what to have for lunch . We don’t have to fight with ourselves to shower every morning because it is a habit. We do fight with ourselves if we want to leave the warm bed to go for a run because that is not yet, for most of us, a habit. To make a habit we have to make the behaviour automatic.
The basal ganglia is the part of the brain that is involved in the formation of habits . When we first learn a new task there is a section in the front part of our brains – called the pre-frontal cortex – which is activated. The pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain involved when we have to make decisions and plan things or when we have to remember many things at once, as we do when first learning a new task. When a behaviour is repeated multiple times, however, it becomes automatic and we can see this change happening in the brain as well. When people are given a new task to complete their pre-frontal cortex works hard but when they have learned this task, and repeated it so many times that it has become automatic– or a habit – the activity switches to further back in the brain – to the basal ganglia .
In order to teach our brain to make this change the behaviour we want to make a habit of has to be repeated multiple times in the same context with the same cues. Our environment is filled with cues which tell us what to do when. When we get into bed we feel sleepy, when our alarm rings we get up, when we see the front door we take out our keys. Our brain likes cues and so if we want our brain to make a behaviour automatic we have to give it the same cues [3, 4]. This means that instead of saying ‘I’ll go for a run every day’ you should say ‘I’ll run every day as soon I get up’. If you do this enough times then your brain will learn to associate your alarm clock with running and you will automatically get up and run.
You can do the same with the PIP. If you say ‘I’ll use the Pip for 5 minutes every morning before my coffee’, you will automatically reach for the PIP when you see the jar of coffee in the morning. The time taken to form a habit is different for everyone but the good news is that every time you repeat the behaviour it becomes a little more automatic . And even better, you don’t have to berate yourself if you miss just one day because a recent study found that, as long as you consistently do the behaviour on most days, missing it for one day doesn’t make too much of a difference .
- Wood, W., J.M. Quinn, and D.A. Kashy, Habits in everyday life: thought, emotion, and action. Journal of personality and social psychology, 2002. 83(6): p. 1281.
- Yin, H.H. and B.J. Knowlton, The role of the basal ganglia in habit formation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 2006. 7(6): p. 464-476.
- Neal, D.T., W. Wood, and J.M. Quinn, Habits—A repeat performance. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2006. 15(4): p. 198-202.
- Lally, P., et al., How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 2010. 40(6): p. 998-1009.