A few weeks ago at our Blackburn group we talked about the resistance to tracking food, in some cases, came from the inability to get it into our routines. Often people tell us that they start off well, and do it for a few days, then usually the weekend comes and tracking goes out of the window.
Personally, I suspect that this is because our routines change at weekends. The routine we have in the week is probably quite structured, we get up, get ready for work, do our morning jobs, go to work where we have even more routine, then we finish work and have a further routine to get us to bedtime. But Friday night arrives and things are a bit more relaxed, we are out socialising, shopping, being a glorified taxi for our offspring, doing the household chores, and the routine we have managed to establish in the week with our tracking, goes by the wayside.
Tracking isn’t the only habit that we struggle with either. It might be reducing our night time grazing, or our Friday night indulgences. It could be forming the habit of doing some daily exercise, or attending a weekly group, or maybe prepping our food in advance. Forming and breaking habits is hard.
But, there are lots of things that we can do to help us break our old bad habits and form new ones. Having done some research there are some psychological models that we can use to help us understand how habits are formed, and also how they are broken. And if we understand this then we can start to use different strategies to help form and break habits.
The first is the 3R’s – Reminder – Routine – Reward. This model basically suggests that everything we do is in a ‘habit loop’ of reminder, routine and reward.
- We experience a reminder to do something – e.g. our phone pings.
- We perform the routine – e.g. we pick our phone up to look at it.
- We experience the reward – e.g. we gain information or we are entertained by whatever we see on our phone screen.
Or what about we get up in the morning and start our morning ritual.
- Reminder: We wake up and our mouth feels grotty and we need a wee
- Routine: Straight to the bathroom, have a wee, wash hands and clean teeth
- Reward: The relief of no longer needing a wee and a fresh mouth
When we experience a pleasurable reward from following through from the reminder to the routine, the pleasure centres in the brain make you want to do it again, so the next time you experience that reminder you perform the routine that brought you the pleasurable reward. And the more we do it, the more it reinforces the pleasure in the activity, so the habit becomes deeper rooted or more established.
To establish or break routines we have to use these stages to either encourage or disrupt our behaviour and thought processes.
The 20 second rule
The 20 second rule is also useful if you want to break habits or indeed form new habits. Our brains naturally do things that we are well practised at, walking in the house and going straight to the fridge, or brewing up and foraging in the fridge when we get the milk out.
So if we want to stop a bad habit, we need to interrupt the thought process that gets us to performing the routine (as we have talked about before).
Scientists and Psychologists reckon that as little as a 20 second interruption is enough to disrupt the habit loop, so another tactic would be to interrupt your bad habit with a reminder to perform your new one.
This principle was tested out by a Harvard ‘happiness researcher’ Shawn Achor. He wanted to learn guitar, but he found that the 20 seconds it took him to go into his bedroom to get the guitar out of the closet and then get it out of the case was just too much hassle for him. So he removed that 20 second barrier by buying a guitar stand and leaving the guitar out in the living room of his apartment. This meant, when he saw the guitar, he actually picked it up and started practising.
Equally, when he wanted to break the habit of walking straight in the house after work, and jumping on the sofa, picking up the remote and pressing the power button to watch TV, he decided to remove the batteries from the remote and put them in another room. The bother of having to go and find the batteries meant that he stopped performing the ritual of sitting on the sofa and picking up the remote.
Achor’s theory focuses on breaking the habit (new or old) down into it’s smallest parts. Rather than focusing on the whole mentally draining activity of going to the gym, tracking your food all day, or having the will power to resist temptation of the fridge or the treat cupboard, you just need to focus on the start of the activity. Achor calls this ‘Activation energy’. Activation energy is the spark that catalyses a chain reaction. It’s an actual thing in physics! So why not apply it to your physical and mental energy – use this activation energy to kickstart a new routine, by focusing on the very first thing that you need to do to perform the routine, and make that as easy as possible, or make it as difficult as possible to perform in the case of a bad habit.
How can I use this to help me?
So if we want to establish a new routine, there are a few things we can do here to help ourselves.
- Set a phone/computer reminder – our phones and email or computer calendars are wonderful things, with inbuilt reminder functions and diaries. Why not use our phone to set a prompt for us to complete a new action until we get in to the habit of eating.
Kim, one of the Be Strong team, has set a reminder in her phone to track her food in meal tracker. She set it to recur every day, mid morning, mid afternoon and before bed, to prompt her at regular intervals to put her meals in the meal tracker.
- Using existing routines as a reminder – if you want to incorporate something into your routine, attach the action to something you already do. For this you need to make a list of everything you do every day (not just week days, but the weekends too), then looking at that list can you find a way to attach whatever you want your new routine to be to that action. Could it be cleaning your teeth, washing your face, having a shower, going to the loo, making a drink, eating a meal.
I find most of my new habits are best formed when I associate them with waking up, for instance I have attached drinking a pint of water and performing some flexibility stretches to when I wake up in the morning, before I get out of bed – and it’s worked. Or if it’s something I need to do repeatedly throughout the day, I attach it to the action of going to the loo, or making a hot drink. I once had a back problem, and after a trip to the physio, they asked me to do some exercises 3 times throughout the day, so I did them when I went to the toilet. It sometimes meant that I did them more, but that wasn’t a problem.
- Use objects as a reminder – leave your trainers and kit by the bed if you want to go for a walk or a run in the morning. Leave a pint glass/water bottle by the kettle to remind you to drink a pint of water before you have a hot drink, leaving your kit on the front seat of the car to remind you to go to your class after work, leave a sports bottle on your desk at work, in your bag, and out in the kitchen to serve as a prompt to drink more water.
- Reward your new habit – every time you complete your new desired habit you could give yourself a little mental pat on the back and a high five, seek feedback from close friends and family to celebrate what you have done, and this positive feeling should help to reinforce the new good habit. Ask yourself how can I make this new habit satisfying to me? What will give me pleasure from performing this new routine? It could be even just thinking that ‘this habit is going to get me to where I want to be’, or ‘I did it, yes! I am actually doing this!’ Be positive about the new routine, don’t look on it as chore – look forward to completing it and being happy with yourself.
- Make the new habit easy – make sure there are no barriers in place to prevent you from performing your new desired habit or routine. Ask yourself – why is this new habit so hard? What stops me from doing it? And work through potential solutions that will make it easy. You might get the answer straight away, it might be trial and error.
- Focus on the first action in the habit, rather than the whole routine – increase the resistance to perform bad habits and decrease the resistance to perform good habits. So if you have a bad habit of eating ham out of the fridge when you get the milk out – put the ham somewhere else – an airtight tub, so you can’t just peel it out of the packet. I had a bad habit of sticking my finger in the Nutella jar when I was getting a tea bag out of the cupboard before bed. I moved the Nutella out of my view, and I stopped the bad habit. If you want to focus on performing a new habit of tracking food, whatever method you use, make it easy to access, put it on your home screen so you see it regularly, carry the book (and a pen) in your pocket, so you touch it every time you put your hands in your pocket.
There is no doubt that forming and breaking habits is hard. These are deep rooted, well practised behaviours, that have formed over weeks, months and years so it stands to reason that it will take some effort to break or make them. However, if we get smart with this, and use the tools provided by these two models, we have a chance of success.
How long will it take to form a new habit?
Well this is obviously going to vary and it will depend on a number of factors. Your desire to form the new habit, how long you have been doing something else, how easy the new habit is to perform etc. However, there has been some research done into this by the University of London.
They wanted to test the theory that it only takes 21 days to form a new habit – this theory actually came from Dr Moltz, a plastic surgeon who observed his patients would get used to their new appearance from about the 21 day mark.
They selected 96 people to take part in the study, who were asked to form a new habit that was either eating, drinking or a particular activity to be carried out every day, in the same context, e.g after breakfast, before bed, after work etc. The study measured levels of automacity – how conscious the act was, or whether it was automatic – on a scale of 1-10. the study found a really wide range of results. With one participant only taking 18 days to form a habit, and one taking 254 days at the other end of the spectrum. However, on average the researchers concluded that on average it should take most people 66 days to form a new habit.
So what we can take from this? Well I think we can give ourselves a bit of a break. Don’t beat yourself up when your new habit hasn’t settled in by the end of the first week. Just keep persevering and trying, use the tools we have discussed above and give yourself the best chance at forming and breaking habits.
What habits have you got that you want to change? Could you use some of the tools we have discussed above to make some changes? Let us know what your habits are that you want to stop, or that you want to start, and have a bash. Reward your efforts and just keep trying. Because eventually you will get there!