Even after the year that was 2020, I’ve spotted countless articles and media outlets “helping” people set New Year’s resolutions and kick bad habits. Whilst I’m not one to usually set a resolution, this year I want to do more of what I love which includes these articles. So now the thesis is in and I had a Christmas break (WAHOO), what can science tell us about habits, whether breaking or forming them?
How many times have you tried to kick or start a new habit? Whether it is exercise, healthy eating, more productive studying or just less screen time, making or breaking habits can be hard if we just rely on our own will power. I find myself falling into habits, more so since last March, more lie-ins, more takeaways but also more running so I won’t feel too bad. Amongst other habits, the increased health concern awareness around smoking and alcohol use has led to more interest in scientific enquiry as to why we form habits in the first place. Most habits are created unconsciously and carried out automatically. Take brushing your teeth, you probably don’t have to actively think about brushing your teeth while brushing, it is an automatic habit we learn early in life and ultimately frees up our brains for other thoughts and processes.
You have probably heard of Pavlov’s dogs. In 1927, Pavlov was measuring the salivation of dogs, noticing they drooled upon sight of food (a stimulus). He then added a second stimulus, a bell; when the bell rang, the dog would receive food. Eventually, the dogs learnt that the bell meant food and would drool when hearing the bell alone; this is known as classical conditioning. Much like Pavlov’s dogs, we also form some habits in such ways, for example a caffeine fix. Initially, you may have a coffee because you’re tired but if this coincides with you also being bored or happening at a certain time of day, it becomes habitual. How often do you find yourself having a tea break at exactly the same time each day? Such small, seemingly inconsequential actions are much more likely to become habits than large, broad statements such as “I will exercise more this year“.
MRI brain scans have highlighted that when an individual learns a new task there is activity in the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. However, as the task becomes second nature, brain activity moves to the putamen and basal ganglia, which are considered areas for “rudimentary” function. These areas require less mental energy, freeing up our brains for things that require more conscious attention, like crossing the road for example. This is very useful for everyday tasks like getting dressed and showering, but what about when we want to kick a habit?
Studies have shown that health campaigns for healthy eating and quitting smoking rarely have the desired impact, as just informing people of what is best for them is not enough to kick a habit. Although smoking rates are dropping in the UK, the 2019 ONS data found that roughly 6.9 million adults over the age of 18 smoke in the UK despite there being no health benefits. Addictive substances such as nicotine, alcohol and even caffeine make some habits harder to break, even the dopamine release from social media makes it harder for us to stay away from the endless scroll. Unfortunately for those hoping to kick habits, there is no concrete evidence for the exact length of time it takes to break a habit. However, researchers at University College London followed 96 individuals forming new habits over the course of 12 weeks, concluding the average time taken for a new habit to stick was 66 days. The time span ranged from just 18 days to 254 though, so it is still very individual. Luckily, breaking and making habits involves the same response in our brains; when you “break” a habit, such as quitting smoking, you’re actually forming a new habit – not smoking. Although, it is recognised it is much easier to start doing something new, rather than to quit something you do habitually. It appears the stronger your motivation for your new habit, the more likely you are to succeed in your endeavour.
What about conditions that make habits even harder to kick? Some, wrongly, consider obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) to be limited to the habitual need to clean, tidy or repeatedly perform a task. In fact, sufferers do not struggle with habits but compulsions which can manifest as one of two primary symptoms: obsessive thoughts and/or compulsive behaviours. One analogy states that OCD sufferers know they need to slow down but their brake pedal isn’t working as well as it needs to. Some researchers have hypothesised the “orbito-striato-thalamic circuit” (which is involved in habit forming), is physically enlarged in those who have OCD, whilst a second “cingulo-opercular network” (which has been linked to the detection and implementation of self-control) was shown to have increased activation in OCD patients. However, this didn’t translate to an inhibitory effect in their actions (e.g. the patient’s brain knew the individual needed to stop compulsively washing their hands but it didn’t have the ability to override the compulsion). OCD is now commonly treated with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), gradually approaching fears of sufferers and exposing them to triggers, whilst teaching them coping mechanisms. However, more research could potentially shed light on possible links between neural networks and OCD to help sufferers even more.
So, what should you do if you want to form a new habit or break an old one? The consensus seems to be that small, specific steps are better, big broad goals are too much to handle, and that it will take time; Rome wasn’t built in a day etc. etc. Some even suggest small rewards when you manage your new habit, for example a square of dark chocolate after a workout (although, I’m not sure I wouldn’t just eat a whole bar…). When kicking a bad habit, recognise how it disrupts your day-to-day life, and identify triggers which lead to the habit. For me this means timing the “Do Not Disturb” function on my phone to begin an hour before bed so I wind down. May 2021 be a year where you are kind to yourself, set the hurdles low and do not punish yourself for small wobbles; you will soon have achieved your goals.