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Understanding our Everyday: Habit Formation

Dr Phil Noone

We are creatures of habit and we tend to repeat the same behaviours in recurrent contexts. A growing body of literature suggests that habit formation plays a vital role in the enhancement of positive lifestyle choices and well-being.

Personal Perspective

On March 18th 2020, I started going for a walk, every day, in the early afternoon. At this time, I gave it no special consideration. But within a few weeks, I realised something ‘big’ was happening here. This time in the afternoon became my ‘precious time’ in the day. There was nothing to interfere with this routine. I was working from home. There was, in a sense, ‘no excuse’. I wasn’t tired. I’d rid myself of commute time and no longer worked late to avoid the build up of traffic on my way home. I felt more in control of my own time. It was easy to incorporate this new walking routine into my day. The notion of habit began to fascinate me. The woods where I walked was less than 2 Km from my home. As a result, it involved less time spent in the car and more time walking. I began to look forward with anticipation to what new budding green leaves or tiny flowers I would notice on the verges of the nature trail. I walked there every day for three months. The routine, the familiarity of it was easy and comforting.

Stages of Habit Formation.

Interesting work was conducted by Gardner et al (2012) who developed a three phased approach to habit formation. This made sense when I applied it to my own walking routine.

  1. Initiation phase: the new behaviour and the context in which it will be done are identified.
  2. Learning phase: it is during this phase that automaticity develops, the action is repeated in the specified context to strengthen the association between the activity and where it occurs.
  3. Stability phase: the habit has formed, and its strength has plateaued. As a result, the practice persists over time with minimal effort or deliberation.

What is important in habit formation is that each person chooses an activity that they enjoy or want to do (self-control) to think of it positively (motivation), to set small goals as to why they are doing it (goal setting) and to have it as a small, realistic, achievable and manageable steps initially (action) because, otherwise, the process can be disempowering if it is too much to manage. What is key, is to try to keep motivation going for 6-10 weeks or until the habit forms and becomes automatic.

When I apply the steps above to my own experience, it is an exciting revelation. I set out initially with a goal – to increase my fitness levels. But research tells us that in time, the goal becomes less important as the activity is continued.

Phase 1: Initiation: Being at home, I thought – why not!. Over time, the goal become less critical, and the sheer enjoyment, wonder, sense of excitement, sensory experience and feeling of overall well-being took over and became the primary motivator.

Phase 2: Learning: Walking in the woods because an effortless, seamless part of my day, regardless of the changing weather patterns.

Phase 3: Stability: Over time, it became a habit that is now cemented into my day.

Environmental Cues

So, what about the role of environmental cues in habit formation. Here again, it is interesting. Environmental cues remained strong. Leaving my walking shoes at the front door was a cue. Putting the dog in the car was another cue. Changing into gym clothes another alert. All small, but collectively, many consistent, environmental cues acted in the formation of this habit.

Tool Kit for Habit Formation (adapted from Gardner et al 2012)

Decide on a goal that you would like to achieve

Choose a simple action that you can do every day

Plan when and where you will do the action

Be consistent. Choose a time and place that is the same every day of the week (if possible).

Every time you encounter the time and place – do the action.

It will get more comfortable with time. Within about 10 weeks, you might notice you will be doing it automatically, without having to think too much about it.

Building in a reward system along the way is an excellent motivator.

Doing the activity with a friend is also a motivator because it builds commitment.

Walking the dog is a great motivator, they wag their tails, spin round in circles with such excitement that is it hard not to head out!

It’s all a process and it’s important to start somewhere. Small steps, congratulations along the way.

You can do it!.

More details on this topic and others are to be found in the Mental Health for Millennials Series (2017-2023). Themes covered include wellbeing, resilience, happiness, positive habit formation, finding one’s signature strengths, finding balance in Millennials life, personal reflections on bullying, media manipulation, flow and flourishing, culinary curiosity, wellbeing in sport, letting go in the Covid-19 era and finding one’s tribe to thrive. In our 2021 volume, the theme is ‘on resiliency’ to include such topics as: sea swimming, body image, Irish agriculture, grief, children, youth and resilience, chronic conditions amongst others.

Series Editors Dr Niall MacGiolla Bhui and Dr Phil Noone. Books available to purchase from Phil on Tuesdays after Mindfulness Class (11-12md, morning class) and (6-7pm, evening class) at Setu Studio Space, Clarinbridge and from BookHubPublishing.