Self-improvement has been a popular pursuit during the lockdown (as was baking, which, as anyone good at it will vouch, is really a process of self-improvement). People tried to sleep better, eat better, exercise better — getting themselves to acquire new (and good) habits.
That’s easier said than done.
The unfortunate thing about habits is that it isn’t about memory or willpower. That’s what most people think they are about — and most people are wrong. A good habit , say behaviourists, is to set oneself up for success by adopting a strategy that is about neither memory nor will.
Behavioural scientist BJ Fogg, who’s been studying habit formation for over two decades, says people tend to miscast habits as big goals. Instead, he argues, it’s small changes that change behaviour. This counter-intuitive idea forms the basis of his book, Tiny Habits (2019).
The trick, according to him, is to reimagine the habit.
Not as a virtue (as some tend to do). Nor about it being good for the body or the mind. But simply as a pattern of the everyday.
A good way to do this is to find a slot for the new habit, ideally piggybacking on an existing one — for instance, stretches soon after a bath; vitamins before watering the plant.
There is a difference, of course. Many habits that people have are essential ones. Science says most species form habits as part of an ancient evolutionary response.
The habits people want to form, though, the new ones, offer more cumulative, abstract or long-term results . The idea is to trick the mind into believing that the habit is a mundane and necessary one — so that no conscious decision needs to be made about it.
There is a a myth that it takes 21 days to build a healthy new habit. In truth, it’s a lot more complex than that. Research shows that it can take between 18 and 254 days for a behaviour to become second nature.
“You can’t put all behaviours and habits in one category,” says Dr Samir Parikh, director of the department of mental health and behavioural sciences at Fortis Healthcare, Delhi. “The best way to go about it really is to tack it on to an existing everyday task.” People try to make it about reward instead — a snack with your vitamins, or after your run. “But the danger there,” Dr Parikh adds, “is that you’re really trying to form two new habits; neither might take; and if the feedback mechanism gets diluted, then the habit is gone.”