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Research shows that it takes an average of 66 days to establish a new habit. A habit is some activity we’ve done so often that it has become automatic. It might be brushing our teeth every night and morning, or eating slowly. It might also be grabbing something sweet whenever we’re upset, or staying up late playing video games when we’re over-tired.
Habits save us time and brain energy and help us live effectively, if they’re good ones. On the other hand they can also complicate our lives and interfere with our effectiveness if they’re not so good.
Charles Duhigg. His new book The Power of Habit discusses the science behind how we form habits.
What he found is that every habit goes through a three-stage “loop”. At first there is a trigger or cue that signals the brain to go into automatic mode. Next is the routine – the actual behavior. Finally, there is the reward – something that our brain likes that helps perpetuate the habit loop.
This happens in the part of our brain called the basal ganglia, located at the base of our brain. This is also where we develop emotions, memories and pattern recognition. Decisions happen in a different part of the brain, but as soon as they become automatic, that decision-making process goes to sleep. This is the real advantage of habits – it means we can have a lot of mental activity that we can devote to other things.
Setting is also part of the behavior, because it in large part contains the cues. So if we want to change a habit, change the setting. Stopping smoking while on vacation, for instance.
This gives the biggest clue to how to change a bad habit. Let’s say you want to stop emotional eating. The cue or trigger in this case would be an event that makes you feel bad – a particular aggressive person, late night loneliness, whatever it is that creates in you a desire to eat emotionally.
First, develop a list of alternatives to emotional eating; then place that list in a place that you would encounter when you go to emotionally eat. It might be eating more suitable foods, like celery; or paying a bill; or going for a short walk. If this list interrupts the path of the old habit, it is more likely to take its place.
Next, begin to change the habit with an activity that’s very easy to do. The easier it is, the harder it is to say “no”. If you had prepared ahead of time bags of carrot and celery sticks, this is easy and quick, and begins a new habit in no time.
Finally, it’s important to reward yourself, to celebrate. Remind yourself verbally that you did well, allowing yourself to feel good about breaking something that was really doing you no good.

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