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  • Writer's pictureTo Your Health Editorial Staff

New year, new you: the science of making, breaking and replacing habits

Welp, after what felt like the longest year ever, it's 2021. And with the new year often comes resolutions — maybe more so this time round.

Perhaps you want to lose some of those "corona-kilos" or simply maintain the good hygiene behaviours drummed into us during the pandemic.

And in January, especially, we must wade through an onslaught of organisations spruiking the latest in get-rich/thin/fit-quick schemes or myths perpetuated by pop psychologists on daytime television.

But there are ways to develop good habits — and make them stick — that are backed by scientific evidence.

And it all begins — where else? — in the brain. But first: what even are habits, and why do we need them?

We really are creatures of habit

A substantial chunk of daily life is made up of habitual actions. This is the stuff where once you get going, you pretty much run on autopilot.

A classic example is driving to work (back when regular commuting was a thing). You might remember getting in your car and then suddenly, you're pulling into your office's car park.

But the first few times you drove to work were a different story. They required more brain power: planning and memorising the best route to your destination, paying attention to your surroundings and thinking harder about your actions and their consequences.

The actions we repeat that can go on to form a habit are known as goal-directed actions. They need a part of your brain just behind your forehead called the prefrontal cortex, says Karly Turner, a University of New South Wales neuroscientist whose research investigates the brain circuits involved in habit formation.

"It's really important for all the things that we tend to associate with thinking, like planning, memory and paying attention to things," she says.

Also crucial is a cluster of neurons called the striatum, which is tucked away deep within the brain.

It's the circuitry loop incorporating the prefrontal cortex and middle part of the striatum that controls our goal-directed actions.

And as we do something over and over and over and over again (such as driving the same route to work day in, day out) and get what we want out of it (arriving at the office), we phase out the prefrontal cortex and shift control to a different section of the striatum, a little over to the side.

This keeps you doing those automatic actions like stopping at red lights and going when surrounding cars move off.

And bam! We have a habit.

The good thing about habits is they free up the prefrontal cortex so we can think about other, more important things, like gossiping with your passenger.

If we didn't form habits and keep our prefrontal cortex controlling what we do during our waking hours, everyday life would be incredibly tiring, Dr Turner says.

"There's no way that we could do all the things we do and think about them all the time. It would just be exhausting."

But that high-level cognition is still available to jump in and override our automatic actions if need be, she adds.

"If you're stopped at a red arrow, and everyone going straight gets the green, they all move, and that cue will trigger you to take your foot off the brake as well, because that's what the habit is.

"But then you realise you're still on a red arrow, and you stop again. That's the goal-directed component kicking in."

How to make, break and replace habits

Driving to work is one thing. How do you, for instance, form a habit out of an action that you're not forced to do every day, such as getting up early to go for a walk?

Like driving, you need to enlist your goal-oriented system first. You'll develop a habit faster if an action or behaviour is paired with a reward, and the more immediate the reward, the better.

So you might listen to your favourite podcast while you're trotting around the block.

"If you don't find it rewarding, or it's not reinforcing in those early stages, then it's going to be much more difficult to form a habit," Dr Turner says.

Doing the same thing at the same time in the same place also helps. For instance, you might put your gym clothes out the night before so you get dressed as soon as you hop out of bed.

That cue — pulling on shorts, lacing up runners — then acts as a trigger for the behaviour of going to the gym. And once your striatum is in control and you develop the habit, the cue and behaviour are linked, and rewards are no longer needed.

And one day you get dressed, tie up your shoelaces and stride out the door without really thinking about it.

What about breaking a bad habit? Some never truly go away, Dr Turner says, but if you replace one habit with another, your brain preferentially goes with the most recent one.

"So you're not always necessarily aware of all of the habits that you probably possess," she says.

Can you really change your life in 28 days?

Despite any number of websites stating that you can develop a new habit in 28 days, or 21, or 30 (depending on the site), the reality is it's simply not that cut and dried.

How often you must repeat an action before it becomes a habit depends on a few things, such as the complexity of the behaviour, says Barbara Mullan, a professor in health psychology at Curtin University who studies habit formation and maintenance.

For instance, starting an exercise regime from scratch and maintaining it is more complex than, say, swapping sugary drinks for water.

"To form a complex habit can take up to 200 to 300 repetitions, whereas we found in our research that for something quite simple, you can form a habit between around 30 and 60 repetitions," Professor Mullan says.

That's because there are more steps involved in complex behaviours.

"Even if you just want to go walking in the morning, you have to make sure you have your shoes, you have your clothes, you have to decide when you're going to do it, you have to decide where you're going to do it," Professor Mullan says.

"And the more steps that are involved in any behaviour, the more likely it is that it gets disrupted at some point."

Enough of these disruptions and we undo our brain's progress of handing control to our striatum.

Think big, start small

So if you're set on creating or replacing habits in the new year, start small.

Professor Mullan and colleagues have found simple, self-contained habits, which don't require anyone else, can develop in a matter of weeks.

Thinking deeply about your motivation, too, can help you develop a habit faster. Most people don't start exercising because they want to exercise more; they do it to get fitter, stronger and healthier.

Similarly, if you want to get into the habit of using a reusable cup for your morning takeaway coffee, Professor Mullan says to focus on your environmental values.

It's easy to be super-enthusiastic and set big goals at the start of the year, but you'll soon realise you simply don't have the time or energy for a couple of back-to-back yoga classes every day.

So to get started, Professor Mullan advises to keep a diary of sorts of your activities during a normal week, then pick a new behaviour that fits your life circumstances.

If you're not a morning person, then getting up at the crack of dawn to go for a walk is never going to work.

"And be realistic: say 'I can't commit to two hours of yoga every day, but I can commit to a 15-minute walk at lunchtime,'" she says.

"And then if I can do that for a couple of months, then I can think about increasing it or doing a little bit more, or changing it up."

Anyone who's tried and failed to keep a New Year's resolution knows it's easy to get discouraged if we don't live up to the standards we set ourselves.

But, Professor Mullan says, many of the habits we want to replace have developed over the course of the year, "so we shouldn't expect we can change our behaviour in a day".

So if you do fall short, be kind to yourself.

"We need to show ourselves compassion, because if we do set up a new routine or New Year's resolution, and by the end of January it's not working, we are too harsh on ourselves," Professor Mullan says.

"Once we aren't able to keep going, we think, well, there's no point in trying. And that's why a lot of people when they lose weight, they put it back on, and then they put on a little bit more.

"It is, in part, because we are so cruel to ourselves."

Article for ABC Science

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