It’s a new year, in fact it is already March and sitting at our desks with a fresh set of tasks and deadlines, we may wonder how indeed to keep those new years resolutions.
With these things, it’s often the prep work that is most valuable. The hours of training before a marathon, the food that nourishes us before we even attempt training, and the good night of restful sleep that precedes the whole event. In a similar light, our success in the day to day and in reaching the goals we set in our 9-5, from attaining that promotion to reaching our KPI’s, largely are impacted by those small and unintended acts that form our habits.
“…studies have shown there lies a link between some habits and others. Eat better and you may feel motivated to exercise, do either and you may notice an increase in productivity or your performance at the office.”
To understand this better, it can be helpful to consider the psychology behind our every day actions. What’s in a habit? and how do they form? Habits are largely those automatic and perhaps mechanical acts that have snuck into our neural mechanisms of reward. They make us feel good from the sense of repetition and mastery they induce. In a way, they help us to cope. In the brains of our primitive forebears who were drawn to pleasure and sought to avoid pain, the sense of accomplishment brought on by learning new skills and attaining their mastery felt good. And so habits became those repetitive and unconscious acts that activated signals of reward. Take the case of stressful deadlines as an example, we might decide to eat a considerable amount of chocolate, which feels good and allows a momentary escape from the imminent deadline. Recorded into the wiring of the brain goes the learned association of copious amounts of chocolate with lower stress and so a new automatic habit is born, leading to the temporary pleasure of a sugar rush and away from the pain. But non-sugary habits, such as slouching or sitting with our backs straight and tall both in turn activate the same chemicals of reward.
KEEP UP A NEW HABIT FOR 21 DAYS
So how long does it take to form a new habit? In the 1950s an American surgeon Maxwell Matz, noticed that it took 21 days for his patients to adjust to their post-surgery selves. However, a more recent study by Phillippa Lally, a health science researcher at the University College of London has shown that it takes at least 66 days and up to eight months to solidify new habits and make learned behaviour automatic. Over time the reward itself becomes less important and a sense of pleasure is derived from the behaviour itself. In fact, the brain is already experiencing the reward sensation even before the reward itself arrives. Two to eight months can be a long time, and this leads us to wonder if there are ways we can sustain a new learned behaviour through a period of this length.
HABITS LEAD TO OTHER POSITIVE BEHAVIOURS
How can we hack this aspect of our brain and pick up on negative habits, indeed how can we train ourselves to perform optimally to turn the behavioural changes we are aiming for to be automatic and activate mechanisms of reward? Some clues to this can be found in the science of small wins, in other words actions which unlock other positive patterns of behaviour. These are called keystone habits, and studies have shown there lies a link between some habits and others. Eat better and you may feel motivated to exercise, do either and you may notice an increase in productivity or your performance at the office. The key is to start somewhere. Though small, these actions may help us feel empowered and take that further step. In a way, this is the philosophy behind Transform Health.