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Slow change

After a holiday or at the start each new year we can feel inspired to make some changes to the way we live.

The changes might be to:

  • Get fitter

  • Quit smoking, drink less

  • Eat healthier food

  • Waste less time on Facebook

  • Become a better listener

  • Stop having negative thoughts

  • Be less stressed

  • Shop less, declutter the house … whatever it is

But how do we make real change happen?

It’s about changing our habits.

If inspiration gets you started - habit keeps you going.

Last year we talked about the benefits of taking a slow approach to life.

Today we’re going to talk about the challenge forming new habits and how a slow approach is more likely to be successful.

A study carried out at the University College London found that it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit.

On average, it takes more than two months before a new behaviour becomes automatic — so that's around 60 days.

1. We start by embracing the idea that change is a long, slow process.

Start with low expectations. For instance, my husband has always hated running and thought he’d be really bad at it. Last year he took up running, and when he started he would set himself a manageable goal such as running from one lamppost to another, then next time between two lamposts and so on, until he was running around the block and over a hill.

Instead of pushing himself beyond his limits he felt good about achieving small goals, and making incremental improvements

2. It helps if we can adjust things to make the new habit easier to achieve

Psychologists define habits as learned actions that are triggered automatically when we encounter the situation in which we’ve repeatedly done those actions

Habits are formed through a process called ‘context-dependent repetition’.

For example, imagine that, each time you get home each evening, you pou yourself a glass of wine. When you drink the wine, a mental link is formed between the context (arriving home) and your response to that context (drinking wine).

Each time you subsequently have a wine in response to getting home, it reinforces this link, to the point where getting home becomes a prompt for you to have a glass of wine without giving it much prior thought.

And so a new habit has formed.

You can use this same principle to adjust things to make the new habit easier to achieve. You can make the new habit easier to pick up by building on the old bad habit

For instance, if the habit you want to change is having a glass of wine to drink when you get home, try buying cans of tonic and keep them in the fridge. Stock up on lemons, so that when you get home you instead can make yourself a lovely glass of chilled tonic to drink.

Here's another example, I am really bad at drinking enough water despite various attempts to change. During a recent bout of hot weather I realised I really need to change my water drinking habits.

So now I have a lovely 1 litre metal flask that I enjoy drinking from. I fill it every day and it my task to drink it over the course of the day.

  • It’s easy to know if I’ve done it or not

  • I enjoy using the flask so that helps the experience

  • the flask acts as a physical reminder to me to drink more water

3. Don’t try to be perfect. You don't have to be perfect.

The 2010, University College London study found that there was variation in how strong the new habits became:

  • There was a sharp uptake and then a plateau

  • for some people habit strength peaked below the halfway point and for others it peaked at the very top.

  • It may be that some behaviours are more suited to habit formation

  • For instance habit strength for simple behaviours (such as drinking a glass of water) peaked quicker than for more complex behaviours (e.g. doing 50 sit-ups)

  • or that people differ in how quickly they can form habits, and how strong those habits can become.

The study also found that making a few mistakes had no measurable impact on the long-term habit formation.

What are the lessons for us?

  • Stick with the process

  • Be kind to yourself.

  • Celebrate small wins

As long as you continue doing your new healthy behaviour consistently in a given situation, a new habit will eventually form.

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