How to make or break a habit

Lucia Harris 29 July 2014

According to conventional wisdom, habits take three to four weeks to form – but the truth is much more complex.

Participants in a 2010 UK study conducted by University College London (UCL) and published in the European Journal of Social Psychology took between 18 and 254 days to form a habit – that’s 66 days on average. Examples of habits formed during the study included drinking a glass of water after breakfast or eating fruit with lunch.

Why such a broad range of days? Some habits are more complex than others and everyone's brains are wired slightly differently. The study suggests that habits take longer to form than we may have previously thought, but there are a few things you can do to help you use or lose habits to enhance your life.

All about habits

A habit is a behaviour that is repeated regularly, usually without thought, until it becomes automatic. The automaticity is a result of a mental association between a cue and a behaviour.

The word “habit” often has negative connotations, but forming a habit can be a positive thing too, if you’re aiming to create a desirable behaviour.

Habits are notoriously easier to make than they are to break because it’s easier to wear in a new neural pathway than it is to erase one that’s already there. Making or breaking a habit can put you in greater control, so here are some practical steps that may help you get there faster:

How to make them

  • Be specific. If the habit you want is “getting fit”, try “a run after work”, if it’s “spending less”, try “this is my spending limit for clothes this month”, and so on.
  • Start small. It’s good to dream big but by setting small, measurable goals each day, week or month, you’ll know how you’re doing and feel more of a sense of achievement along the way.
  • Set a time and place. Repeat the behaviour at a particular time and place to boost your chances of making it an automatic reaction to your cue.
  • Don’t beat yourself up. The UCL study found that missing one opportunity to repeat the behaviour did not affect the habit forming process. In other words, just because you miss a behaviour forming opportunity, it doesn’t mean you should give up!
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat. Whether you want to make a habit out of checking in on your bank balance (MoneyHub might make your life easier here!), or you want to learn a new song on your banjo by heart, you need to repeat.

How to break them

  • Become aware. When do you indulge in the habit you want to break? Does when give you any clues as to why? Becoming more aware of your action can help you to complete the next step…
  • Address the cue as well as the behaviour. If you spend too much because you’ve had a bad day at work, work out why you’re feeling on edge and if you really can’t fix it, find a less expensive way to ease your stress.
  • Form a new parallel pattern. Going for a run around the block when you would normally smoke a cigarette, or checking in on your money goals when you would normally go on a spending spree.
  • One step at a time. Concentrating on breaking one habit at a time may be easier than quitting everything at once.

Habits are present in every part of your life, from brushing your teeth before you shower in the morning to checking your door is locked at night, chances are you have a number of actions that you perform regularly without a thought- out of habit - and these habits extend into your financial life too.

MoneyHub can help you become more aware of your spending and savings habits, and to set your goals.

What are your tips for making or breaking a habit? What habit would you most like to make? And break? Tweet us @yourwealthuk