Friday, 31 December 2010

How to Form a Habit in the New Year

At new year it seems nearly everyone wants to change some aspect of their lives.

But as we all know, new habits are hard to form.  Many of us give up before a habit has formed.  So the key question is, how long should we persist before we can expect new behaviours to become automatic?

A recent study by Lally et al (2010) reviewed a range of health related behaviours, for example going for a 15 minute run before dinner, eating a piece of fruit with lunch and doing 50 sit ups after morning coffee.

Of the 82 participants who saw the study through to the end, the most common pattern of habit formation was after 66 days.  However, this average figure hides the variation between participants.  Some reached automaticity after 18 days and others after 254 days!  It's also worth noting that even after 84 days over half of the participants had not reached automaticity.  So new routines should be persisted with for at least 3 months before we may expect them to be automatic.  This is longer than previously thought, and complex behaviours (like practicing mindfulness) may take longer. 

But finally, what about the effect of falling off the wagon?  What effect does a day off from the new behaviour have?

This study suggests that a single missed days has little impact.  However, repeated missed repetitions of the behaviour do have a cumulative impact.  The conclusion is that a missed day or two is fine, but be willing to come back hard if you do miss a day. And be willing to persist for at least 3 months. 

For fuller details of this study go here.

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