October 11, 2010

Forget about automaticity (and other tips on forming good habits)

A few days ago, Peter Damoc commented on my post about Building healthy and productive habits. He mentioned how hard it is to form good habits and and asked me for some additional insights. This is what I said:

"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).
(Talking about habits ... this is my post nr 998 - update: I miscounted, it is actually post 996)

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