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Deciding to take your heart health into your own hands by making some healthier behaviour changes is the first step. But how long do you need to keep up with these changes before they become habit?

Research suggests it takes between 18–254 days to make a new behaviour an ingrained habit, indicating there’s considerable variation from individual to individual.

Why does the process take so long? According to research, behavioural change involves physical changes in the brain. The problem is that behavioural change isn’t something that a person just suddenly chooses to adopt. You have to slowly learn a new habit. And this means that you have to ‘overwrite’ the ingrained, existing habit with the new habit. This takes time and repetition.

When planning the timeline of your behavioural change program, consider:

  • The time you have been practicing the existing habit – eg, eating unhealthy food for 25 years versus 5 years.
  • The benefit of learning a new habit – eg, trading fun weeknights at the pub with greasy food for disciplined nights at the gym and a salad.
  • The frequency of the practiced behaviour – eg, if someone has woken up every day for 25 years and had a cigarette, waking up and having an orange juice for 25 days is not enough to change that habit.

How can you make behavioural change stick?

If you want to establish a new behaviour, you have to ‘re-wire’ the neural network that enables the old behaviour pattern. This means even in the best case, the desired behaviour may have to be repeated and reinforced for many months.

A study in the European Journal of Social Psychology1 found some interesting results:

  • They looked at 96 subjects who each chose an eating, drinking, or activity behaviour to carry out daily (eg, exercising after breakfast) for 12 weeks.
  • The time it took participants to perform the new behaviour ranged from 18–254 days for 95 per cent of the time.
  • Apart from the considerable variation between individuals regarding how long it takes people to adopt new behaviours, research showed that change can be achieved if you persist.

Tips for maintaining changes

1. Don’t focus on the amount of time – focus on repeating a specific behaviour pattern over and over. With enough repetition, all the related brain cells eventually connect and the new behaviour becomes an ingrained pattern.

2. A new habit feels awkward at first, but with enough repetition it will feel natural again.

3. Maintenance, persistence and staying ‘in the moment’ and being aware of your behaviour is important, as it’s easy to slip back into old habits.

4. Consider the length of the existing habit – are you going up against a 3 year habit or something you’ve been doing for 30 years?

5. Budget on at least 3–6 months to make the new behaviour stick, and don’t be discouraged if you occasionally slip back into old habits.

Adapted from original article provided by Guy Leech.

References

1. Lally, P et al. How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology 40(6):998-1009.

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