Habit formation, How to change!
by Aileen Ludington, MD and Hans Diehl, DrPH
Hard to get up in the morning? Hate to exercise? Can’t shed those extra pounds? Most of us long to be different—to live healthier, more disciplined lives. Yet our most determined efforts to change too often come to nothing.
Why is it so hard to change?
Habits are what tie us down—and our lifestyles are often little more than the sum total of our habits. True, they can oil the machinery of our lives, helping us glide through our days, saving time and energy. (Who would want to have to stop and think how to tie a pair of shoelaces, after all?)
But habits can make our lives more difficult as well—and if you doubt that, try changing sides of the bed with your spouse tonight!
The repetition of anything—good or bad—
causes the habit to become confirmed in our lives:
and fixed habits determine our character.
How are habits formed?
As you’re probably aware, your brain sends messages to the rest of the body through nerve cells. Each nerve cell has a central processing headquarters and a long sending fiber (or axon) over which it relays messages. Nerve cells also have lots of tiny receiving fibers (or dendrites) for incoming messages.
Frequently used axons form tiny bumps; scientists call these bumps boutons, from the French word for buttons. And the more boutons a nerve cell has, the more easily and quickly it’s able to transmit messages.
This helps us understand how habits are formed in the nervous system. Any thought or action repeated over and over builds little boutons on the ends of the affected axons, making it easier to repeat the same thought or action. It’s almost as though the repetition wears a groove in the brain, much as the repeatedly walking over the same place in a lawn will wear a path in the sod.
Once these pathways are formed, can they be changed?
Boutons, unfortunately, do not go away when they are no longer used. And because the old pathways are still there, the chance of falling back into a bad habit is always present, as when an alcoholic “falls off the wagon.”
But people can change, can’t they?
Yes, but only by building new habits that are stronger than the old. The new choice must be made repeatedly, over and over.
That sounds tough!
It can be at first. But in time more boutons will appear on the new pathway than on the old one, and the “path” will wear deeper. As it becomes easier to take the new route, the new habit is being established.
How long does this take?
Most people find it takes about three weeks to form one new habit. A few years ago, for instance, a woman named Anya Bateman decided to start flossing her teeth. What had been a tiresome chore, she learned, evolved into a bedtime ritual in less than a month. Encouraged, she applied her three-week plan to breaking her habit of eating too many sweets. Next she broke her habit of criticizing her husband, then formed a new habit of praising her kids. The results were so astounding that they were published in Reader’s Digest.*
Likewise, just as some people become accomplished musicians by so many hours of daily practice, we can become a better person by consistently making good moral choices. And even if we lose a battle now and then, we won’t lose the war—not as long as we get right back onto that new “path” we’re trying to form.
So if you’ve always wanted to get some more exercise, try starting tomorrow. Get up a half hour earlier and hit the pavement with a brisk walk or jog. Sure, it may be tough at first—but in three weeks you’ll have shed a few extra pounds, and you’ll be on your way to a healthier lifestyle.
I can do everything through him
who gives me strength.