First question, how have you been doing with staying committed to your goal? How about with that support group of yours? If you need a refresher, you can always go back to the commitment post or the support and accountability post. Now, how have you been doing with your first SMART eating change? Have you forgotten about it already? That’s ok if you have because this week is all about maintaining your change until it becomes a habit. If we give up on our changes by not turning them into habits, what’s the point of making resolutions?
My goal is to convince you that a) forming new habits is a skill to be practiced, and b) how long it takes to form a habit is not as important as knowing when the action has become a habit. This way we can turn these healthy eating changes into habits. If we focus on turning changes into habits we can reach our goals while taking back control over our health.
Let’s get started…
Quick to Be Awakened and Quick to Fall Asleep
Have you noticed that as a society we are quick to notice changes that should be made but then forget about them shortly after? This past weekend a pastor said something that really resonated with me… Too often we are quick to be awakened to others’ needs (or even our own) and quick to fall asleep to those needs. He was talking about injustices today, but I think we can also apply it to making changes in our own lives.
As a society, we have some ‘bad’ habits when it comes to eating. Over the past 25 years, obesity in America has doubled. And don’t get me started on the climbing rates of several health conditions, such as is seen with heart failure, type 2 diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and cancer. (I provided links to the national statistics at the bottom of this post if you want to check them out.)
Medicine has come so far, so why aren’t we getting any healthier? I’ll let you in on a little secret… It has to do with how and what we eat. Thankfully, the statistics above has awakened many to the need for eating healthfully. However, when it comes to actually doing something about it, we quickly forget and go back to old habits. But it’s so important for us to form good eating habits, especially when our health is at stake.
You can also see our forgetfulness when we look at New Year’s resolutions. It’s a trendy thing to make resolutions at the beginning of each year. Everyone does it, right? But, how many times do we actually want to stick to those resolutions? How many of us say, “I need to change this” or “I need to start (or stop) doing this.” Yet so many times we forget about it. I think we need to be asking ourselves if we really meant what we said. It could be that we were just speaking out of guilt. And guilt doesn’t do anyone any good.
Pause: Heart check
You know, I hate being a hypocrite, so I have to just take a moment to say that I am convicted of this, myself. I am so not good at forming healthy habits. It’s actually quite funny how there are plenty of ‘bad’ habits that weren’t so hard for me to form. But when it comes to replacing the ‘bad’ with the ‘good’, those ‘bad’ habits come back with a vengeance. Just when you think you’re in the clear, the real temptation comes. I guess it’s true what they say… Old habits really do die hard.
The good news is you’re not alone! We’re in this together and we can overcome these obstacles. We don’t have to give in to the statistics that say we’re getting more and more unhealthy each passing year. Guilt doesn’t have to haunt us each time December 31st comes around. If we turn our healthy eating changes into habits, we can start to look forward to the new year. We can finally say goodbye to that holiday guilt – foooooreeeeeever!
Now you may think, “that’s great, Cait, but how do I turn the changes I want to make into habits?”
Great question. Let’s break down what it’s going to take to turn our healthy eating changes into habits.
What’s a Habit, Anyways?
What a habit is has been investigated for a long time. A habit is considered to be triggered by a certain situation and is formed through repetition and reinforcement (Hull, 1943). In another study, participants said a habit is when an action doesn’t take much thought to perform (Wood, 2002). (You can find the list of articles I found at the bottom of this post. You can double check what is said in the articles to make sure I’m on the right track.)
So, a habit would be an action that you do until you start to do it without thinking, whether that’s intentional or not. Brushing your teeth is a good example, or eating something when you’re hungry. You don’t really think about those things, you just do it.
Every night after dinner I crave sweets. When my husband and I lived with my parents while my husband fixed up our new home, I had ice cream pretty much every night after dinner. Well, I was pregnant. My excuse was that I needed the calcium and calories… I “needed” ice cream for the pregnancy, right? That’s at least what I told myself. But after I had my son, my brain continues to thinks it’s time to have something sweet after dinner.
I was in the habit of eating something sweet so my body got used to it. Now I’m paying the consequences. I unintentionally formed a habit by simply letting my body get used to doing something every day – eat ice cream – at a specific time – after dinner. Now that I have created the monster ice cream cravings, I have to work that much harder to not give into them every night.
Sidebar, real quick…
Just because you have a thought, desire or craving doesn’t mean that you have to give into it. If you know you shouldn’t give in, you can fight back and you can beat it. Someone once told me that you are not your thoughts. Praise the Lord for that because I’d be in deep trouble otherwise. So, remember that just because you think it/desire it/crave it, it doesn’t mean that you are doomed to failure. Now back to habits…
Not All Habits Are Created Equal
According to a recent study by Lally and colleagues, it takes an average of 66 days to form a habit. However, the time to form a habit ranged from 18 days to 245 days amongst the participants. If you google how many days it takes to form a habit, you will find all kinds of answers from 2 weeks to 21 days to 90 days.
So, which one should you believe? How long does it really take to form a habit?
Well, it’s complicated.
The problem with setting a deadline for habit-forming is twofold – not every habit is created equal and how you think, act, and respond is unique to you.
When I say that not every habit is created equal, I mean that there are many factors that come into play when forming a new habit.
For example, are you replacing an old habit? Or are you trying something completely new that you’ve never done before? Is the desired habit challenging and/or difficult?
One person may have a hard time with cutting down on sodas, but it may be easy for you. However, you may have a hard time remembering to add veggies to your meals, while someone else is a vegetarian and can make those changes more easily. You could be the type who new habits just come easy to or the type who has to work a lot harder to make them stick. The list of factors that determines how long it will take you to turn a change into a habit goes on and on. And we don’t even fully understand all the genetic differences and environmental factors that come into play as well.
So as you can see, forming habits is complicated because we are complicated. Just as there is no one way to healthy eating, there is no one way to forming habits.
Instead, let’s not worry about how long it will take to form a habit. Let’s focus more on the signs of when an action has become a habit.
Before giving you my own opinion on habits, I wanted to dig a little deeper into what science says. After reading several articles, most said that it’s easier to replace an old habit than to stop an old habit. (Articles are all listed at the bottom of this post.)
Most also agreed that the best way to form a habit is to connect the action to a habit you already have.Best way to form a #habit is to connect the action to a habit you already have @platewithcaitClick To Tweet
For example, if you want to eat more veggies, you could place the veggies in front of an item that you use frequently in the fridge. That way you see the veggies every time you get that item out. Or if you want to cut down on sodas, put whatever your substitute is – non-sugary, of course – in front of the sodas. This way, when you open the fridge to grab a soda out of habit, you are reminded of your desire to cut down on sodas.
Ultimately, you don’t just need a plan to make your change. You need to have a strategy on how to turn it into a habit. A change may happen a few times, but a habit will last a long time.
Ok, so if you skipped to the bottom here’s what you missed…
A habit is something you do without thinking.
Spoiler alert: there is no magic number of days that it takes to form a habit. Hence why you form habits and not do habits – do you see the difference there? It’s more than just an action.
To turn an action into a habit you need to pair the action with a habit you already have.
I’ll leave you with these words of wisdom: where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.* Notice it does not say where your heart is, there your treasure will be. Instead, you practice where you want your treasure to be and your heart will follow after. The same goes for where we want to form habits – you practice the habits you want to have and your heart will follow after.
What you can do now is to take note of the habits you already have – how did they become habits? What was the most recent habit you made and how did you do it? Which habits do you do now that you could pair with a habit you’re trying to start? Do you need to journal your progress or have an app to track how well you’re doing?
Did I convince you that habit forming is a practiced skill? Do you now believe that knowing when a habit is formed is more important than making a deadline to form it?
If you are convinced, leave me a comment below! If I missed anything or if you found this helpful also comment below. I would love to hear your thoughts.
As for next week, we’ll dive into our last step in making eating changes that last – how to juggle more than one change.
Obesity: https://stateofobesity.org/obesity-rates-trends-overview/ (Figure at bottom of page)
Autoimmune diseases: http://www.autoimmuneregistry.org/autoimmune-statistics
Gardner B, Lally P, Wardle J. Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice. Br J Gen Pract. 2012;62(605):664-666. https://www-ncbi-nlm-nih-gov.ezproxy.library.tamu.edu/pubmed/23211256
Hull, CL. Principles of behaviour: An introduction to behaviour theory. New York: Appleton-Century Crofts. 1943.
Judah G, Gardner B, Aunger R. Forming a flossing habit: An exploratory study of the psychological determinants of habit formation. Br J Health Psychol. 2013;18(2):338-353.
Lally P, Van Jaarsveld CHM, Potts HWW, Wardle J. How habits are formed: Modeling habit formation in the real world. Eur J Soc Psychol. 2010;40:998-1009. http://repositorio.ispa.pt/bitstream/10400.12/3364/1/IJSP_998-1009.pdf
Orbell S, Verplanken B. The automatic component of habit in health behavior: Habit as cue-contingent automaticity. Health Psychol. 2010;29(4):374-383.
Wood W, Quinn J, Kashy DA. Habits in everyday life: Thought, emotion and action. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2002;83:1281–1297.
*Matthew 6:21, ESV