The power of habit, or why it takes 66 days to stop snacking

A large part of our everyday lives is determined by habits. This makes our lives easier, but it also prevents us from simply changing bad behaviour. How do we change our habits for good?

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Photo by Sylvanus Urban on Unsplash

The following text is an excerpt of the GDI study "Prevention in Transition" which can be downloaded free of charge.

Many of us are creatures of habit and do the same things every day. 38% of Austrians give their partner a little kiss every morning. They then spend an average of 15 minutes in the bathroom, brushing their teeth, doing their personal hygiene and grooming. And 83% of them engage in some form of media consumption every day before leaving the house.

Younger people mostly prefer digital media, older people still read printed newspapers. 85% of 12 to 17-year-olds in Germany spend about three hours a day on WhatsApp, Instagram and the like. The Swiss spend an average of 1.5 hours a day in traffic. Frequently at the same time and on the same route, such as on the morning commuter train.

In a study whose participants made a note every hour of what they were doing and what they were thinking of, researchers around the psychologist Wendy Wood found that 40% of our everyday lives is determined by habits. Habits were here defined (relatively narrowly) as behaviours that occur in the same place every day.

When widening the definition of habits to behaviours that occur regularly but not every day (for instance, washing one’s hair, going to the gym, or watching a TV crime film on Sundays), it can be assumed that more than half the day is spent on habits. Many behaviours relevant to health also meet the narrow definition of habits. Thus, Wood’s study found that most hygiene practices such as having a shower, brushing one’s teeth, or washing one’s hands take place every day and in the same place.

But half of all dietary and exercise behaviours, such as having the same breakfast every day or going for a run after work, are also habits according to this definition. Diet and exercise being crucial for physical and mental health, habits are of the utmost importance for promoting health, especially for primary prevention, i.e., avoiding illness.

Habits often take place by themselves, ‘on autopilot’, as it were. According to a study by Lally et al. a behaviour must be repeated daily for 66 days for it to become an automated habit. Strictly speaking, half the participants of the study had automated a behaviour after 66 days, although there were outliers in both directions: one participant had internalised the habit after only 18 days, another required 256 days. It was not a problem if the behaviour was skipped on isolated days. The important thing, however, was a stable environment triggering the automated behaviour.

If a behaviour is practised ‘on autopilot’, we can do the washing-up and, in thought, be somewhere else entirely, be it on the next holiday or reliving yesterday’s quarrel. With 60% of the habitual behaviours performed (daily and in the same place), participants in the study by Wendy Wood mentioned earlier were not thinking of what they were doing. In another study, in which people were asked at random times what they were thinking of, mind wandering occurred 47% of the time. So, half the time, we think of something else than what we are doing. A behaviour taking place ‘on autopilot’ is often triggered, relatively automatically, by one’s current surroundings. Habits may be understood as reflex responses to a particular situation. For instance, one gets out one’s mobile while sitting on the toilet. Before going to bed, one brushes one’s teeth. It takes effort not to do that, that is, to fight against the ‘power of habit’. Habits are rarely questioned. At least, not while they are being acted on. How could they be, if one is thinking of something else while doing something out of habit? This can be an advantage, as one does not have to think about whether, how, and when to brush one’s teeth every time. If that were necessary, one’s teeth would presumably get brushed less often. But of course, this also allows unhealthy habits to sneak in, habits for which it would be desirable to stop and think what it is that one is doing.

The study "Prevention in Transition" explains the most effective way to break bad habits.