New habits take time to form

New Year’s resolutions in mind, I’ve noticed an influx of determined-looking people at my gym. It’s the same routine every year: January and February the place is packed, and then beginning in March the numbers start to wane. What is it about habits that makes it so hard to break bad ones and form new good ones, even when we know it’s in our own best interest?

In a recent Associated Press article, Dr. Nora Volkow, a Dana Alliance member and director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, explains that we assign more value to an immediate reward (e.g., chocolate cake) than a long-term goal (e.g., weight loss). The pleasure we get from repeatedly eating the cake is transformed over time into a habit because of the chemical dopamine. As writer Lauran Neergard puts it: “A dopamine-rich part of the brain named the striatum memorizes rituals and routines that are linked to getting a particular reward, explains Volkow. Eventually, those environmental cues trigger the striatum to make some behaviors almost automatic.”

Two main ingredients to breaking bad habits are repetition and time. A recently published report by Phillippa Lally and her colleagues at University College London found that the average amount of time to form a new habit is 66 days. The researchers monitored a group of 96 people looking to form new healthy habits, and rated them based on how automatic their chosen behavior felt.

But while 66 days was the average, the range was widespread: from 18 to 254. As PsyBlog points out, “Clearly [the length of time] is going to depend on the type of habit you’re trying to form and how single-minded you are in pursuing your goal.”

The good news is, Lally et al. found that skipping one day did not affect the habit-forming process. But old habits are easy to resume, as reported in a 2005 study led by Dana Alliance member Ann Graybiel at MIT.

In an MIT report, Graybiel said, “We knew that neurons can change their firing patterns when habits are learned, but it is startling to find that these patterns reverse when the habit is lost, only to recur again as soon as something kicks off the habit again.”

So, for all my fellow gym-goers, here are the steps Volkow offered in the AP article to stay on track in the New Year:

  • “Repeat, repeat, repeat the new behavior…
  • Exercise itself raises dopamine levels, so eventually your brain will get a feel-good hit even if your muscles protest.
  • Reward yourself with something you really desire… You exercised all week? Stuck to your diet? Buy a book, a great pair of jeans, or try a fancy restaurant — safer perhaps than a box of cookies because the price inhibits the quantity.
  • Stress can reactivate the bad-habit circuitry…
  • And cut out the rituals linked to your bad habits. No eating in front of the TV, ever.”

–Ann L. Whitman

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