How closely do you pay attention to your daily habits? For the average person, the answer is “not much”—after all, they’re habits, so they’re things we do without really thinking.
According to an article published by University College London , “Habits are behaviours which are performed automatically because they have been performed frequently in the past. This repetition creates a mental association between the situation (cue) and action (behaviour) which means that when the cue is encountered the behaviour is performed automatically.”
With any habit, the more we perform it, the more “automated” it is, and the less we think about it. It becomes part of our daily routines, an action we perform by rote.
When we start out doing something, it’s an action we take consciously. As one psychologist  explained, the first of the three characteristics necessary to form habits is attention. We consciously decide to do something—reach for that cigarette, take that left turn instead of going straight, or walk up the stairs instead of taking the elevator. Over time, our attention shifts to focus exclusively on that habit, it becomes our accepted “norm” rather than something we have to consciously decide to do. That settles into purposeful repetition, which over time turns into automated behavior.
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According to the UCL article mentioned above, a habit takes an average of 66 days. The researchers found that participants in their study went from totally new behavior to a high degree of automaticity over an average of 66 days. That’s just over two months of regular repetition for a behavior to become a habit.
But what if that habit isn’t good, isn’t healthy? What if it’s an unhealthy habit—from over-eating to over-drinking to missing sleep to smoking—that is harming your body? Should you continue engaging in that automated behavior just because it’s ingrained in your mind?
Absolutely not! Healthy, positive habits are always worth keeping, but it’s important that you break bad habits and replace them with new ones.
How can you do that?
Step 1: Determine to make a change. Breaking habits is VERY hard, even when highly motivated, and it’s going to take a lot of commitment and dedication on your part to make the change. But, if you know that making the change is the right choice, it’s worth putting in the effort!
Step 2: Take control of your environment. Take control of the space where you are, and remove anything that could be a visual cue or trigger for that old habit. The more you control your environment, the easier it will be to fill it with things that encourage your new habit and eliminate anything that could cause you fall back into your old automated behavior.
Step 3: Start small, work bigger. Some people can break certain habits “cold turkey”, making big changes from one day to the next. But not everyone’s capable of that—most of us do better when we make small steps of progress and change every day. Approach breaking your habit in this way, with small bits of forward motion as you work to pull away from your old habits. Don’t sweat it if you backslide or forget; just keep trying every day, and know that you’ll break your habits with that effort, one day at a time.
Step 4: Replace old behavior with new. In order to break an old habit, it’s often easiest to replace it with a new one. The truth is that new habits don’t necessarily erase the old habits ; instead, they simply replace that behavior and have stronger influences on your actions and decisions. So find a way to “rewrite” your brain, to write something over that old habit that will have a stronger influence on your actions and decisions.
Step 5: Give it time.As the above-mentioned study detailed, habits take time to form—months, not weeks or days! Don’t try to rush things, but give your brain and body time for those habits to take root. Time and repetition are the two crucial factors to build new habits.
Step 6: Get help. Experts  agree that getting help can make building new habits much easier. Get help from friends or family, join a support group, or talk with a professional. The more entrenched these habits are, the harder they’ll be to break. Getting help will give you a support team to go through the journey together, and “many hands make light work” even when dealing with old, bad habits.
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