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Locking in Brain-Healthy Habits

Key strategies for making positive lifestyle changes.

Source: Fokusiert/iStock
Source: Fokusiert/iStock

The classic New Year’s resolution capitalizes on our excitement and optimism as we move toward a (hopefully) better period ahead. While these resolutions sometimes lead to meaningful life changes, many are all but forgotten by the spring. It can be a hard slog to wire in a new habit or lifestyle change, and various factors can help or harm this process. Even our beliefs about how change occurs can positively or negatively affect our lifestyle goals.

Here's one sobering statistic: About 50% of people who intend to change their behavior fail to do so. How can we join the 50% of people who do change their behavior in a positive direction? And, what do we know about the time it takes to establish a new habit?

In one study, people were asked to consider a type of behavior they wanted to add to their lives, such as exercising, following a healthier diet, or meditating. They were then instructed to choose a daily behavior that followed a reminder, and this cue could only occur once per day (such as exercising every day after breakfast).

The study participants were followed for about three months, and the researchers sought to understand how quickly new habits became automatic. Not surprisingly, about half of the participants did not establish automatic behaviors by the time the study was completed. However, the other half was different: Their new habits became consistent by 12 weeks, and sometimes quite a bit sooner. The average time to lock in a habit was 66 days. It also tended to be easier to adopt changes in diet (an average of 65 days) than to add in an exercise habit (91 days). The study also found that missing one day while trying to build a new habit wasn’t a big deal. Other research has found that missing more time than that, especially early on, can wipe out your gains and send you back to square one.

When we consider how habits are formed, research points to four key steps. First, we need to decide that it’s time to make some sort of a lifestyle change. Second comes the decision to actually do something related to this change, such as starting an exercise routine or clearing out the cookies and chips from your pantry. This is a challenging step, described as the intention-behavior gap; we all have ideas on how to improve our lives, but changing our behaviors to align with our plans tends to be pretty difficult.

Making it to the third step of habit formation can be a real stretch. This particularly critical step involves repeating our new habit over and over again. Doing something just once or twice is a recipe for a quick return to your personal status quo, so repetition is crucial to establish any lifestyle habit. The final step is to repeat something enough that it becomes automatic. This might translate into a regular walk or workout at the gym every Tuesday and Thursday after breakfast, or seeking out carrots instead of Oreos when you start craving a mid-afternoon snack. From a brain-based standpoint, something becomes habitual when you no longer have to think deliberately about doing it (dominion of the frontal lobes) and instead establish an effective, automatic routine (governed by some regions below the cerebral cortex, including the basal ganglia).

Another important aspect of forming new habits is to keep track of how we’re doing. For any lifestyle tweak we hope to make, it’s imperative to understand what our baseline is for that behavior, what our plan is for moving forward, and how to deal with potential barriers that can potentially get in the way of our goals. Indeed, one large study found that across a wide variety of behavior change strategies, self-monitoring was best at helping people improve their diets and build in an exercise routine. Writing or typing our goals can also increase the chances of accomplishing what we set out to do.

We know from personal experience and the science that locking in new habits is no small task. By considering the process as more of a distance run than a sprint, we can develop more realistic expectations for creating habits that stand the test of time.

Adapted from The Brain Health Book: Using the Power of Neuroscience to Improve Your Life by John Randolph, Ph.D., published by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.


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