Do it every day. British researchers studied how people form habits in the real world, asking participants to choose a simple habit they wanted to form, like drinking water at lunch or taking a walk before dinner. The study, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, showed that the amount of time it took for the task to become automatic — a habit — ranged from 18 to 254 days. The median time was 66 days!
The lesson is that habits take a long time to create, but they form faster when we do them more often, so start with something reasonable that is really easy to do. You are more likely to stick with an exercise habit if you do some small exercise — jumping jacks, a yoga pose, a brisk walk — every day, rather than trying to get to the gym three days a week. Once the daily exercise becomes a habit, you can explore new, more intense forms of exercise.
Make it easy. Habit researchers know we are more likely to form new habits when we clear away the obstacles that stand in our way. Packing your gym back and leaving it by the door is one example of this. Wendy Wood, a research psychologist at the University of Southern California, says she began sleeping in her running clothes to make it easier to roll out of bed in the morning, slip on her running shoes and run. Choosing an exercise that doesn’t require you to leave the house — like situps or jumping jacks — is another way to form an easy exercise habit.
Dr. Wood calls the forces that get in the way of good habits “friction.” In one study, researchers changed the timing of elevator doors so that workers had to wait nearly half a minute for the doors to close. (Normally the doors closed after 10 seconds.) It was just enough of a delay that it convinced many people that taking the stairs was easier than waiting for the elevator. “It shows how sensitive we are to small friction in our environment,” said Dr. Wood. “Just slowing down the elevator got people to take the stairs, and they stuck with it even after the elevator went back to normal timing.”
Dr. Wood notes that marketers are already experts in reducing friction, inducing us to spend more, for example, or order more food. That’s why Amazon has a “one-click” button and fast-food companies make it easy to supersize. “We’re just very influenced by how things are organized around us in ways that marketers understand and are exploiting, but people don’t exploit and understand in their own lives,” she said.
Reward yourself. Rewards are an important part of habit formation. When we brush our teeth, the reward is immediate — a minty fresh mouth. But some rewards — like weight loss or the physical changes from exercise — take longer to show up. That’s why it helps to build in some immediate rewards to help you form the habit. Listening to Books on Tape while running, for example, or watching a favorite cooking show on the treadmill can help reinforce an exercise habit. Or plan an exercise date so the reward is time with a friend.
Take the Healthy-Habits Well Challenge: Now that you know what it takes to start building healthy habits, try the new Well Challenge, which gives you a small tip every day to help you move more, connect with those you love, refresh your mind and nourish your body. Just sign up, and I’ll send you a daily email about your next challenge.