What’s the key to setting a lasting habit?


Think of learning to tie your shoes, play a musical instrument, or perhaps something as complex as learning to write. 

The truth is, we don’t think about these activities much at all. 

Once we’ve mastered a skill, it goes onto the backburner of our mind along with all our other habits. Healthy habits offer significant benefits. Our ability to perform multiple tasks at once, such as listening and writing notes, are deeply ingrained habits, paving the way for significant gains in productivity.

Dr. Judson Brewer is a leading neuroscientist and expert in habit formation, mindfulness, and addiction. In Dr. Brewer’s TED talk, he describes the habit formation process as a sequence of “trigger, behavior, and reward.”

A study on the psychology of “habit-formation” published in 2012 by The British Journal of General Practice found that habit formation is reasonably simple. Repeat an action consistently in the same context until it becomes automatic. Perform the desired actions consistently for 10 weeks, and the behavior will become easier and eventually, automatic.

Aim for Automaticity

Some of us may remember learning multiplication facts in elementary school. Knowing the facts leads to “automaticity,” something Speech-Language Pathologists and Educational Therapists aim for when working with struggling learners.  Automaticity is a behavior that allows us to perform an action automatically, without even having to think about it.  It frees up our conscious attention and mental resources, also known as working memory. Achieving automaticity allows us to attend to more complex matters.

Automaticity can be a double-edged sword. While it can help establish desirable habits, it can also make it difficult to break unhealthy or undesirable ones too. If we’re not aware of our behaviors, we can quickly forge counterproductive habits such as over-eating and self-medicating.

When practicing a new skill, we may fumble, stumble, trip or fall. This happens. It’s part of the process. It’s fine. Don’t give up. Keep at it until the act becomes fluid, and requires minimal effort.  The more complex the action, the longer it may take to become automatic.

Keep in mind that practice over time makes a habit. The goal is not perfection. The goal is to channel awareness, efforts, and energy in a way that allows constructive and positive habits to form.

The doctor of the future may prescribe habit-formation advice

Dr. Brewer suggests one way to begin to break a “bad” habit is to be curiously aware of your habits. Describe the sensory experience. How does it look, feel, and smell? What does it sound like? Slow down and objectively allow yourself to simply observe these sensations. Eventually, you’ll become emotionally disenchanted with the habit you wish you to change. The disenchantment stage is often the first step in letting go of old habits and adopting new ones.

Gardner B, Lally P, Wardle J. Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice. The British Journal of General Practice. 2012;62(605):664-666. doi:10.3399/bjgp12X659466.