October 6, 2010

Building healthy and productive habits - how do you reach maximum automaticity?

Research Digest Blog has an interesting post on How to form a habit which describes research by Phillippa Lally and colleagues. Habits can be defined as those behaviors that have become automatic, triggered by a cue in the environment rather than by conscious will. Building healthy and productive habits is, of course, very useful but little systematic research into habit building has been done. Lally's research in which she asked participants to adopt a new health-related behavior suggests some interesting things:
  1. 66 days needed on average: The average time to reach maximum automaticity was 66 days.
  2. It varies per person, though: The time it took to build maximum automaticity varied greatly between participants from 18 days to a predicted 254 days. This is much longer than most previous estimates of the time taken to acquire a new habit. 
  3. Complex habits take longer: more complex behaviours were found to take longer to become habits. Participants who'd chosen an exercise behavior took about one and a half times as long to reach their automaticity plateau compared with the participants who adopted new eating or drinking behaviors.
  4. A few omissions are okay: What about the effect of having a day off from the behavior? Writing in 1890, William James said that a behavior must be repeated without omission for it to become a habit. The new results found that a single missed day had little impact on later automaticity gains, either early in the study or later on, suggesting James may have overestimated the effect of a missed repetition. However, there was some evidence that too many missed repeats of the behavior, even if spread out over time, had a cumulative effect, reducing the maximum automaticity level that was ultimately reached.
Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C., Potts, H., and Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology DOI:10.1002/ejsp.674


  1. Acquiring new health-related habits... I found this article very interesting and quite thought provoking - there's hope!
    I like the idea of an average of 66 days - and that a FEW ommisions are OK (say at most one single day per month?) to keep us human.
    PS. Coert, I found that book - will start reading soon. Thanks!

  2. This is such a complex issue. It's been years since I try to understand the proper lever, how to beat the Resistance and just start doing something you know works.

    Being immersed in personal development for the past 5 years I've seen the issue of habits pop up frequently but I still fail at implementing even ONE good habit.

    For example Meditation. I have read/listened to TONS of material on why/how Meditation helps. I can safely say that I understand the benefits better than the vast majority of people BUT I still fail to do it properly. It is so damn hard to wake-up and do anything else than dress and go to work.

    I managed to go to a gym 2 times per week in the morning after a very very painful experience with low power/energy. I have about 6 weeks since I do it but I don't expect that level of pain as a motivation for everything.

    Externalizing motivation through social support works wonders but it makes me dependent on other people and this is not sustainable.

    Any insights on this would be appreciated.

  3. Hi Peter,
    Thanks for your interesting comment. I sympathize. I have found it hard to form good habits too. Reading about this research does help me understand a bit better and I think brings it a little more under my control. Here are some thoughts:

    1.It may take longer than you think: 66 days seems to be an average but for some people it takes a lot longer. I think I have often stopped too soon to reach automaticity.
    2. It depends on the behavior. Gym and meditation certainly seem to qualify as complex behaviors, so I think you should expect automaticity to take long.
    3. I think we need to be careful not to try to form too many new habits at the same time. Perhaps we should not work on adding more than one new habit a time?
    4. For myself I used a rule to 'forget about automaticity' which means I am not desperately waiting for the moment that automaticity is achieved. For instance I am now working on adding a certain gym habit and I've been working on it since about 9 weeks. I have not reached full automaticity on it and I have no idea when that will happen, I'm not even thinking about whether it will happen or not. I am still doing it very consciously because I think my health will benefit from it. My paradoxical hypothesis is that if you 'wait for automaticity' this may delay the achievement of automaticity. So I argue for: forget about automaticity.
    5. What helps me is to create cues which remind you every day to do the behavior. This does not have to be a time-related cue. Instead of forcing yourself to do the habit each time when you wake, if that is very hard for you, hang a post it on the wall which you can move to another spot on the wall whenever you have done the behavior (no matter at what time you have done it).

  4. Thank you Coert! No. 5 is really interesting.

    Regarding no 3. I focused on going to gym and ignored the other habits. After about one month I moved to meditation. Maybe automatic behavior is not yet present in the Gym habit but I do believe that it requires less attention now.

  5. I agree. My own gym exercise is not automatic now but it is much less hard and aversive than it was, for instance, a month ago

  6. Hi, thought you maybe interested in this video on motivation if you haven't already come across it: http://jaerankim.wordpress.com/2010/06/10/what-motivates-us/


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