Habits are a big part of who we are. What we do habitually make up much of what we do entirely.
In fact, it’s estimated that up to 70 per cent of our waking behavior is made up of habitual behavior. People are highly variable and if you can’t form one habit easily, it doesn’t mean that you can’t form other habits easily.
It takes 21 days to form a habit, or does it?
Some people say 18 days, some people say 21 days, some people say 30 days, and some people say 60 days. So, which one is it? Does it depend on the habit that one is trying to form or does it depend on the person that’s trying to form the habit?
A study published in 2010, first authored by Lally, found that for the same habit to be formed, it can take anywhere from 18 days to as many as 254 days for different individuals to form that habit. This suggests that the time it takes to form a habit can vary greatly depending on the individual and the habit they are trying to form.
In this blog post, I will take a look at the scientific literature on how the nervous system learns and engages in neuroplasticity and apply that to habit formation, habit maintenance, and if so desired, how to break particular habits. I will also give you a particular tool that’s gleaned from the research psychology literature.
Procedural Memory and Habit Formation
With each repetition of a habit, small changes occur in the cognitive and neural mechanisms associated with procedural memory. So, what is procedural memory? In the neuroscience of memory, we distinguish between what’s called episodic memory and procedural memory. Episodic memory is a recall of a particular set of events that happened, whereas procedural memory is holding in mind the specific sequence of things that need to happen in order for a particular outcome to occur.
Think of it like a recipe or a protocol, or if for the sake of exercise, it’s like sets and reps or a particular course that you’re going to run or cycle, or the number of laps you’re going to swim and how you’re going to perform it. It’s very clear that for anyone trying to adopt new habits, getting into the mindset of procedural memory is very useful for overcoming that barrier that we call limb friction.
A Simple Visualization Exercise
A simple visualization exercise can be done to shift people towards a much higher likelihood of performing that habit regularly, not just the first time but as they continue out into the days and weeks that follow. This exercise doesn’t even have to be done with eyes closed. Oftentimes, we hear visualization exercises and think about sitting in the lotus position with eyes closed, trying really hard to visualize something. It doesn’t need to be anything like that. It can simply be:
If you are deciding to adopt a new habit, just think about the very specific sequence of steps that are required to execute that habit. For example, let’s say I want to get into the habit of making myself or someone else in my household a cup of espresso every morning. I would actually think through each of those steps: walk into the kitchen, turn on the espresso machine, draw the espresso, walking through each of those steps from start to finish.
Task Bracketing: The Most Powerful Tool for Acquiring and Sticking to New Habits
The second tool I’d like to discuss, and what I think is perhaps the most powerful tool for being able to acquire and stick to new habits, is something called task bracketing. The neural circuits associated with task bracketing are basically the neural circuits that are going But They Have a Harder Time Getting into Action
Some people have a perfect balance of both, but I’ve never met one of those people. Task bracketing involves a particular set of neural circuits within the basal ganglia. We have particular circuits in our brain that are devoted to framing the events that happen just before and as we initiate a habit, and just after and as we terminate a habit. In other words, it acts as a sort of marker for the habit execution but not the execution of the habit per SE.
This is very important because task bracketing is what underlies whether or not a habit will be context-dependent or not, whether or not it will be strong and likely to occur even if we didn’t get a good night’s sleep the night before, even if we’re feeling distracted, or even if we are not feeling like doing something emotionally or if we are completely overwhelmed by other events. If the neural circuits for task bracketing are deeply embedded in us, meaning they are very robust around a particular habit, well then it’s likely that we’re going to go out for that zone 2 cardio no matter what, that we’re going to brush our teeth no matter what.
In fact, brushing our teeth is a pretty good example because for most people, even if you got a terrible night’s sleep, even if everything in your life is going wrong, chances are, unless you’re very depressed, if you’re going to leave to work, or even if you’re not, that you’re going to still carry out the behavior of brushing your teeth in the morning. I would hope so, actually. But, you are probably less likely to perform particular habits that are not what you deem as necessary.
But if you think about it, brushing your teeth, exercising, eating particular foods, maybe engaging socially in particular ways, you are the one that places any kind of value assessment on which ones are essential and which ones are negotiable. So task bracketing sets a neural imprint, a kind of a fingerprint in your brain of this thing has to happen at this particular time of day so much so that it’s reflexive.
While it is important to think about the sequence of events that would be required in order to engage in that behavior, that procedural memory visualization exercise we talked about before that will help. There is a way also that you can orient your nervous system towards this task bracketing process so that your nervous system is shifted or oriented towards the execution of a given habit. So this is sort of like warming up your body to exercise.
When the dorsolateral stratum is engaged, your body and your brain are primed to execute a habit, and then you get to consciously insert which habit you want to perform. If you are considering adopting a new habit or if you are trying to break a habit, it’s very useful to think not just about the procedural aspects of what you’re going to do but also think about the events that precede and follow that particular habit and the execution or at least the effort to execute that habit.
What you’re doing is you’re casting a kind of spotlight or around a bin of time or a set of events for which dopamine can be associated. What does this look like in the practical sense? Well, again, I’ll just try and use very simple concrete examples, but this could carry over to anything. Let’s say I were somebody who has a hard time getting in that 30 to 60 minutes of zone 2 cardiovascular exercise mid-morning. What I should do is positively anticipate the onset and the offset of that session right so thinking about leaning into the effort, going out and doing that zone 2 cardio session, and I should think about how I’m going to feel.
In conclusion, habits play a significant role in shaping who we are and what we do. While it is often said that it takes 21 days to form a habit, research suggests that the time it takes can vary greatly depending on the individual and the habit they are trying to form. To form new habits and break old ones, understanding the science of neuroplasticity and the processes involved in habit formation and maintenance is crucial. Two powerful tools that have been found to be effective in this process are visualization exercises and task bracketing. Visualization exercises involve thinking through the specific sequence of steps required to execute a habit, while task bracketing involves setting specific time frames or “brackets” for completing certain tasks, which can help to focus and prioritize them. By using these tools, individuals can increase their chances of successfully forming new habits and breaking old ones.