The truth about habits (and what most people – including ‘experts’ – get wrong)

It’s nice to see that habit change is regularly being discussed in the media. It’s no longer a fringe topic appearing only in obscure wellness blogs. It’s an absolutely necessary component of health and wellbeing (long-term improvement is not possible without it!)

The problem is, there is a fair bit of misleading information about how to change habits.

This article from the Sunday Times Magazine (24 September 2023) gets some things right, but it also get some important things wrong. Accuracy matters here. Because it can make the difference between creating a life you want and a life you don’t.

In this post, I’ll challenge four concepts brought up in the article:

  1. Repetition does not create habits (emotions do)
  2. Lack of sleep does lead to poor choices (but changing your environment can mitigate the risk)
  3. Stopping an unwanted habit requires a step-by-step system (not just a menu of options)
  4. Creating a new habit also requires a step-by-step system (not just a menu of options)


Repetition does not create habits (emotions do)

The article wheels out the age-old myth that repetition creates habits. If you repeat a behaviour enough times or for enough days, the story goes, it will eventually become automated.

Not true, I’m afraid.

Emotions create habits, not repetition. As long as you have a strong positive emotion connected to the behaviour, you can form habits very quickly.

I’ll prove it to you: When a young child eats milk chocolate for the first time, how many repetitions does it take for chocolate eating to become a habit?

One.

Why? Because it makes them feel so good. Whenever they are presented with chocolate after that first encounter, they eat it. No thought, no decision making, no question.

Remember, emotions create habits.

Lack of sleep does lead to poor choices (but changing your environment can mitigate the risk)

The evidence is clear that poor sleep – as well as directly causing myriad physical and mental health problems – leads to less healthy choices.

Let’s consider the example of eating.

After a poor night of sleep, people tend to feel hungrier, have increased cravings for junk food, and ultimately eat more calories the following day.

In other words, when you’re underslept, you’re more likely to buy a pastry for breakfast, reach for biscuits in a meeting, and munch on chocolate while working from home.

But only if those things are reasonably easy to obtain.

You see, motivation is only part of the story here. Lack of sleep might spike your motivation to eat junk. But whether you actually eat the junk also depends on your ability to get it.

What if you didn’t have that coffee stand selling freshly-baked pastries inside the lobby of your office? What if there wasn’t a plate of biscuits on the meeting room table? What if you didn’t keep chocolate in the house?

It would make it more difficult, wouldn’t it? (It may also remove the prompts – see below).

Would you go out of your way to buy a pastry from the bakery on your way into work? Would you leave the meeting to buy a packet of biscuits from the shop? Would you walk to the petrol station down the road to buy some chocolate?

Maybe. But, on most days, probably not.

So, yes. Getting better sleep is incredibly important. But behaviour and environment design are too.

Stopping an unwanted habit requires a step-by-step system (not just a menu of options)

The article touches on some of the right points, but it ignores one of the key variables, and it does what most habits books and essays do: It provides a collection of tips – a menu of options to choose from.

Imagine you want to train for a marathon. Would it be enough to be given a list of the things to consider including in your training? No. You’d want a plan. A method. A system.

It’s the same with habits. To reliably change your habits, you need a proven system. A set of specific steps to follow in sequence. Like Tiny Habits, the system we use in our coaching programmes.

To stop an unwanted habit, start by clarifying the specific habit you want to stop – e.g. checking emails in bed – then move through the following steps until you land on one that works:

1) Can you avoid or remove the prompt?

2) Can you make it harder to do?

3) Can you reduce your motivation?

The author of this article rightly talks about ‘removing your cues’ (prompts) early on. Removing/avoiding the prompt is certainly effective and can be an easy fix – he gives a good example of switching off notifications on your phone (I did this a couple of years ago, and it’s given me more time and more focus).

But the prompt might not be notifications – it might be the act of getting into bed. And you can’t exactly avoid that. If you can’t get rid of the prompt, try reducing your ability by making the behaviour harder to do.

Surprisingly, this article doesn’t mention ability. Although in fairness, some of the ‘remove your cues’ examples would also increase difficulty. Leaving your phone downstairs when you go to bed may remove the prompt, but it would certainly make the behaviour harder (you’d have to get out of bed and walk downstairs to do it).

Motivation is a tough one. It’s usually very difficult to stop a habit by reducing motivation, because it’s not really in your control. Your motivation to check emails while in bed might be the fear that you’ll miss something important. There are certainly ways to address this, but it’s not easy. Reducing motivation is a last resort.

The article also mentions swapping a bad habit for a better habit (‘find a substitute’). This can work, but it’s trickier than people think. The substitute has be more motivating and easier than the habit it replaces. I’m not sure swapping a glass of wine for a hot bath is going to work (even if you found a bath more motivating, preparing it is much harder – unless you’ve stopped keeping wine in the house!).

And substituting an almond croissant and mocha for a healthy smoothie or herbal tea? Good luck!

It is possible to stop an unwanted habit (and easier than you might think). But first, it’s always a good idea to focus on creating new habits. They tend to crowd out the old habits you don’t want.

Creating a new habit also requires a step-by-step system (not just a menu of options)

Enter Tiny Habits (again).

Once you’ve decided on a behaviour you want to turn into a habit, start by making it as specific as possible. Add time of day, duration, and location, and write it down. Specificity changes behaviour.

For example: Go for a 30-minute walk through the woods before breakfast.

Then follow these 3 steps:

1) Start tiny

2) Find a good prompt

3) Celebrate successes

START TINY. The main reason why your habits don’t tend to stick is that you start too big. Big change requires big motivation (and motivation is very unreliable). The solution is to start really small – so small that even on your worst day it will still happen. Your tiny version of the morning walk could be: Put on my walking shoes and step outside the door.

(The article is spot on here: ‘Start with five minutes – even two minutes – whatever’s easy enough that you can repeat it again and again, each day.’ But then falls back into the old – and incorrect – trope that repetition creates habits.)

FIND A GOOD PROMPT. All behaviours require a prompt (or reminder). The most reliable prompts are habits or routines that you already do every day. We call these ‘anchors’ (you anchor your new habit to the existing one). Find a suitable anchor for your habit – right time of day, same frequency, and same location. For the morning walk habit, an anchor could be finishing your early morning coffee.

(The article also mentions this – ‘Add a new habit to an old one’ – but not in the context of a prompt. It’s just presented as another option to try in your habit forming efforts, rather than an integral part of a systematic method.)

CELEBRATE SUCCESSES. As I discussed above, emotions create habits (not repetition). Wiring in a new habit – so that it becomes automatic – requires you to feel good during or immediately after the behaviour. Repetition doesn’t do this. Feeling successful does. And you can create a feeling of success by doing a mini celebration straight after your tiny habit.

(Interestingly, while repeatedly emphasising that repetition creates habits, the article briefly mentions the role of feeling good: ‘If it’s rewarding enough, the action sequence will get stored in your subcortex ready to be played out whenever your frontal cortex detects the time is right’.)

As the closing paragraph of the article says, patience is important here. Not because behaviours have to be repeated a certain number of times before they become habits. But because designing, practising, and iterating the right habits takes time. And because results take time to show up.

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