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4 Myths about Habits: Demystifying the Process

If you are dreaming of your evening glass of wine as you try to get through a “Dry January” challenge or struggling to get out of bed early because of a New Year's resolution you made, no doubt you have thought about habits.

Habits are an important part of being human. They allow us to do certain things automatically, and that frees up our brain to deal with other issues. A remarkable portion of our behaviors are habitual—likely more than half!

And habits can be formed without us even being aware of it. All it takes to get the process started is a cue that triggers a behavior that creates a certain response or result. And over time, the cycle repeats and requires less thought as the behavior becomes more automatic in response to the cue.

There are a lot of misconceptions about habits, and these can get in the way of forming new ones and changing old ones. Here are a few of the most common.

1. Goals must be set to change habits

While setting goals can be helpful to achieve certain objectives, they are not needed to form a habit. Habits are formed after behavior becomes automatic. You can foster that by first becoming aware of the habit loop. A cue triggers a behavior which produces a reward. Identifying your own habit loops and the various cues, behaviors, and rewards associated with each one is a great place to start. Awareness itself can sometimes be enough to pull us out of the loop.

You can also use your knowledge of the loop to facilitate habit change. You can make a cue more desirable or more obvious. For example, you could set out your running shoes—untied—before you go to bed to act as a cue to get out for your morning jog. Or, enhance the reward by giving yourself a pat on the back when you finish your jog, soaking up the good feelings you have, knowing that you did something to benefit your health and wellbeing.

2. It takes a certain number of days to form a habit.

The idea that a behavior must be repeated for many days in order for it to become a habit is convenient, but not true. It certainly would be nice to think, “As long as I exercise for 21 days straight, I’ll establish my habit and won’t have to think about it anymore.”

In reality, the time it takes to establish a habit can vary from a couple of weeks to a few months. It varies from person to person, and it can be different depending on the habit. To accelerate behavior change, Atomic Habits author James Clear recommends focusing on making it obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying. You’ll know when a behavior becomes a habit when you don’t have to think about it as much, when you meet no resistance as you start, and when you miss the activity if you don’t do it.

3. Habits are best started at the beginning of a new year.

The idea of New Year’s resolutions is an appealing one—who doesn’t like a fresh slate with a new year to launch into a new habit plan? But few people stick with their resolutions over time, with most quitting by January 19th, according to a large-scale survey conducted by Strava.

In truth, the best time to start a new habit is when you ready to take action. It may be that the start of the month or the beginning of the week works best, but there is no reason not to think that starting on a Thursday might be most beneficial. Planning how you are going to make your new habit attractive, easy, and satisfying can happen any day of the week.

4. There is one right way to form a habit

If you look in the self-help section of the bookstore, you will see that there are many books claiming have the one right way to form a habit. Just look at the number of books with the word “solution” in the title!

For most people, though, a number of different strategies can be helpful to form a habit. Reflecting on values and connecting your habit to what’s most important in life can work for some people. Identifying strengths and using those to develop a plan can help too. For others, the strategy of linking a new habit to an established habit may be most effective. There is no one right way, and often it is a combination of strategies that works best.

“Change might not be fast and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.” ~Charles Duhigg

The exciting part of habit change is the process. With an attitude of “trial and learn,” habit change can be a fun adventure with unknown rewards and benefits that become apparent during the process. And enjoying the process will help establish the habit. You never know what you might find until you start!


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