Voluntary behaviour can be through of in terms of a three-way relationship between stimulus, response and consequences.
Edward Thorndike referred to this relationship as the ‘law of effect’ whereby the connection between a stimulus and a response is strengthened by a reward or reinforcement.
According to the law of effect, through reinforcement, the connection between a stimulus and behaviour continues to be strengthened over time, to the point where the behaviour becomes automatic – or in other words, a habit.
This idea is summarised well by Phillipa Lally and colleagues:
“Performing an action for the first time requires planning, even if plans are formed only moments before the action is performed, and attention. As behaviours are repeated in consistent settings they then begin to proceed more efficiently and with less thought as control of the behaviour transfers to cues in the environment that activate an automatic response:a habit “
Interestingly, although there has been a great deal of research interest in the topic of habit formation (for obvious reasons!) there have been few studies that have examined the formation of habits as they are formed.
One study by Lally and colleagues went some way towards rectifying this dearth of research, examining habit formation of health-related behaviours among 96 undergraduate university students.
In the study, participants were asked to carry out a health related behaviour (eating, drinking or activity) daily for 12 weeks, in response to a consistent cue (e.g. 15 minutes before lunch). Example behaviours included ‘drinking a bottle of water with lunch’ and ‘running for 15 minutes before dinner’.
Following the 12 week habit formation period, the authors identified 4 key findings:
- More time was required to form more complex habits
- Early repetitions of a behaviour made the largest increases towards automation
- The time taken to form a habit ranged from 18 to 254 days (forecast from the end of the study)
- Missing one or two days of a behaviour didn’t have a material impact on habit formation
These results are important for a number of reasons, primarily because they go some way toward clarifying previous estimates and theories of habit formation.
For example, previous research has suggested that a behaviour can be considered habitual when it is:
…performed frequently (at least twice a month) and extensively (at least 10 times).
By comparison, Lally and colleagues found an average length of 66 days for habit formation!
Despite some limitations (due primarily to the shortcomings of self-reporting), when considered alongside other studies of habitual behaviour, the results also help to highlight some fundamental principles for forming new habits.
Key Principles of Habit Formation
- Start early: Early repetitions create the largest impact in making an action automatic
- Be prepared for the long haul: It takes on average 30-60 days to turn behaviours into habits
- Keep it small and simple: Choose a simple action which you can perform on a daily basis. Complex behaviours take longer to automate as they require higher motivation
- One at a time: Having too many goals can detract from learning for each goal, which makes it harder to form a habit
- Build routines around cues: Habits are triggered by cues such as time or place – you should build your chosen action around these cues to prompt your new behaviours
- Incorporate meaningful rewards: Rewards reinforce habits – build in an immediate reward that has value to you
- Train your willpower: The more you practise using self-restraint or motivate yourself towards goal-driven behaviour, the stronger the likelihood of successfully forming a habit
- Share your goal with others: Make yourself accountable and make it social – telling others about your goal will help to keep you honest!
- Don’t sweat the small stuff: Try to repeat your habit every day, but don’t worry too much if you miss a day or two – one missed day won’t much impact on developing automaticity
A Simple Roadmap for Habit Formation
- Decide on a goal that you would like to achieve
- Choose a simple action that will get you towards your goal which you can do on a daily basis
- Plan when and where you will do your chosen action. Be consistent – choose a time and place that you encounter every day of the week
- Every time you encounter your chosen cue, perform the behaviour
- It will get easier with time, and you will eventually find you are doing it automatically without even having to think about it
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