Each individual possesses a one-of-a-kind pattern of habits. We have dreams about getting rid of some, while on the other hand, we hope to acquire others. This subject continues to pique the curiosity of researchers in the scientific community even after many years have passed. We have compiled an interesting list of facts gathered from the study that, when put together, can help you understand why our activities eventually become habitual.
1. The “loop” is what leads to habit formation
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States who research habits have concluded that the root of any automatism can be traced back to a neurological loop.
It is made up of the following three parts:
- A sign, or more specifically, a prompt that tells us to act in a certain way;
- the behaviour that is derived directly from the action that is repeated regularly;
- The reward is given to the brain when the action has been completed.
Cigarette smoking is an excellent illustration of a habit loop. A cup of coffee, a stressful situation, or even just plain old boredom can be the motivation for someone to light up a cigarette. It is then followed by routine behaviour, and the reward is a fleeting feeling of comfort and reassurance.
As soon as we are confronted with the stimulus, the cycle completes, and we are forced to fall back on the undesirable behaviour. Interestingly, many people who quit smoking switch to sucking on lollipops instead of cigarettes. However, they enter a new cycle, which cannot in any way be considered to be healthy.
Altering the habitual behavior and the reward associated with it is necessary to avoid this outcome. In the cases of smoking and eating candy, the activity might be anything like going for a walk or doing some breathing exercises. And the reward might be something like a motivational entry in a habit tracker or a little snack that is good for you.
2. Half of our waking hours are habits
The development of habits is a consequence of repeatedly engaging in the same behaviours.
According to a study carried out at Duke University in the United States in the year 2006, up to 45 percent of our daily actions and decisions are made automatically or through habits.
The truth is that in this way, our brain is attempting to conserve energy for future use. And the most effective method for this is to automate it through the development of habits.
Like a major event, the brain breaks a complex pattern into parts. Each fragment, which is frequently repeated, is automated, and as a result, completing them requires far less mental work.
Take this situation as an example: you have just gotten a cake from the store and placed it on your desktop while working on your computer. When you wish to take it for the first time, you will most likely look at the packing first. In addition, you won’t be able to take your eyes off the cake until you take it. After some time has passed, you can carry out these steps without being diverted from the monitor screen.
3. Because of how our brains work, we find it very difficult to break old habits
The basal ganglia, often known as the nuclei, are responsible for forming habits, and they are a collection of nerve cells that are found in the more deep parts of the brain.
Peter Bailey, a United States psychologist, conducted a study in 2005 that demonstrated why it might be so challenging to break certain habits. He recruited two persons with damage to their temporal lobes and mental impairment for declarative memory to participate in the study he was conducting. They could not recall faces, activities, items, or even the world around them.
The participants were given a task they needed to complete over many weeks to differentiate between eight sets of objects. Because of the activity in the basal ganglia, they were eventually able to complete the task because it became a habit for them.
It is interesting to note that the participants could not explain the instructions or the objects at the beginning of the exam on each occasion. And if the researcher tried to make things easier by changing the task conditions or the number of objects involved, it was not always successful, and it was a lot harder.
Therefore, the researcher concluded that habits rooted in the basal ganglia could remain with us even after severe harm has been done to the brain. Or take the occurrence of memory loss. Nevertheless, a significant part of them is determined by the terms under which we access them.
4. It takes more than 21 days to form a habit
The American surgeon Maxwell Maltz is credited for reinforcing the idea that it takes this time to form a habit. He observed that it took a patient around 21 days to adapt to a new circumstance after experiencing phantom limb pain.
In 1960, Maltz wrote a book titled Psycho-cybernetics, which discussed his findings and ideas regarding the behavioural change. It was such a success that over 30 million copies were sold worldwide.
However, it became clear that his theory was not entirely accurate. Philippa Lally, a UK researcher, concluded that 21 days is not a universal timescale for habit formation.
In 2009, she experimented with 96 participants. They each chose a new habit, and for one year, they kept track of how well they could maintain it. And in addition, the degree to which their action was reactive.
The habits ranged from the simple, such as consuming 1.5 litres of water daily, to the more involved, such as engaging in some form of regular physical exercise.
The study’s results suggest that it takes an average of 18 to 254 days to acquire a new habit successfully. When it comes to timing, everything depends on the character and circumstances of the individual.