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Creatures of Habit: Change Takes Time

How many of us find that we’re doing some things over and over again that aren’t particularly positive? The list for many of us is probably longer than we’d like to admit. What makes matters worse; we do the very things we know we shouldn’t without even thinking about it. It’s second nature. Muscle memory. A bad habit.

But every once in a while we get enthusiastic about starting fresh and making some positive changes. We even make lists. Eat healthier. Get more sleep. Stop smoking. No more nail-biting. Be more patient.

How do we break those old patterns?

Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) Behavioral Health staffers agree that those wanting to make a change consider this… instead of trying to break a bad habit by simply trying not to do it (replacing it with nothing) try replacing it with a new, positive habit. For example, most evenings after dinner, while watching television you typically get up to grab something to nibble on. Instead, commit to drinking a glass of water (a perfect time to stop and ask yourself, “Am I really hungry, or is this show just boring?”) If your fingernails are taunting you to bite them, don’t do it. Make a point to grab a nail file or clippers and give yourself a mini manicure. Want to step outside for a smoke? Make sure you have sugar-free gum handy and chew that. Craving something sweet? Skip the brownies you made “for the kids” and have some fruit with a little stevia sprinkled on top. Changing old patterns time after time puts you on the road to replacing destructive habits with more desirable ones.

There is no doubt it’s easier said than done. And it can take a while for the new habits to become your habits. Longer than you think. Many people believe that if you repeat an action or activity for 21 days in a row, it becomes automatic, and if it doesn’t stick by then, it never will. Believe it or not, some research shows that we should adjust our expectations when it comes to change.

In a study released by the European Journal of Social Psychology, researchers wanted to find out exactly how long it takes to start a new habit. Once the results were analyzed, researchers discovered that the average time it took for study participants to pick up a new habit was 66 days! Not the mere three weeks we all thought.

If 66 days in a row seems daunting, try smaller increments. Ditching a bad habit for just one day can give you confidence that you can actually do it. Try the next day again, or wait a week and set a goal of whatever it is for two days in a row. You can build from there and set your own pace. Just don’t get discouraged if you slip. It happens to everyone and isn’t a measure of you as a person. Just get back on track and progress will come. In time, your new habits will be second nature.

If you find you’re struggling with making the positive changes you’d like to see in your life, please consider making an appointment for a consultation with a behavioral health professional. They can often be helpful in providing direction for a successful outcome.


Kelly Williamson, MA, LPCS reviewed the information presented here.


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