As we strive for healthier lifestyles and improved metabolic health, forming lasting habits is key. However, popular culture and misconceptions often misguide us, leading to frustration and abandoned goals .
In practice, transforming isolated actions into long-term, automatic behaviors is a deeply personal process influenced by many factors .
Habit formation is a well-researched scientific field, with numerous studies contributing to its understanding . In this article, we will delve into the existing literature, uncover practical evidence-based strategies to cultivate positive habits, and discuss the potential benefits of leveraging your own biological data, such as using a continuous glucose monitor (CGM), to develop lasting behavior changes that benefit your metabolic health.
Debunking popular myths about forming habits
Habit formation is an extremely complex process, both psychologically (our thoughts and emotions) and neurobiologically (the biological and chemical processes in the brain) .
To ensure we don't oversimplify the process of establishing new healthy habits, it is crucial to address and dispel some common misconceptions.
Myth 1: “It takes 21 days to form a habit.”
Contrary to popular belief, the notion that it takes precisely 21 days to form a habit is an oversimplification. Different research studies often report different results, however, one study reported that on average it took 66 days, but results varied widely among participants depending on their behavior, the person, and the circumstance .
Myth 2: “It's all about willpower.”
Relying solely on willpower is not the most effective approach to habit formation. While willpower can provide an initial push, it tends to wane over time . Building a habit requires understanding the underlying mechanisms that drive behavior and creating an environment conducive to positive change.
Myth 3: “Missing a day of forming a new habit erases your hard work.”
Don't be discouraged if you miss a day or deviate from your desired habit. It's important to approach habit formation with a growth mindset rather than an all-or-nothing mentality. A single setback does not erase your progress . Instead, focus on consistency over the long term and the overall trend of positive behavior change.
The reality of successful habit formation
The "21-day habit" myth originates from Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon in the 1950s, who observed his patients taking around 21 days to adjust to changes . However, Maltz didn't claim this as an absolute fact, but rather as a minimum timeframe for habit formation. The reality is that habit formation varies for each person, and there is no magic number that applies universally.
However, studies have sought to quantify habit formation, revealing vast individual variation. One study by Lally et al. in 2010 involved 96 volunteers who performed daily behaviors . Habit formation varied widely, taking a median of 66 days, ranging from 18 to 254 days. Consistent performance led to better habit formation, while missing one opportunity did not significantly affect the process.
A randomized-controlled study by Keller et al. in 2021 involving 192 adults for an everyday healthy nutrition behavior (e.g., eating a fruit or taking a tablespoon of linseed oil) showed a median of 59 days, but a range of 4 to 335 days for successful habit formation .
Time of day can also impact habit adoption. Fournier et al. 2017 found that forming the habit of stretching exercises took fewer days when done upon waking (106 days) compared to before bedtime (154 days) .
Building a habit is a highly individual process. While some habits may form in a matter of weeks, others may require several months. Factors such as complexity, personal motivation, and external circumstances influence the time required for habit formation.
What is clear is the critical importance of repetition for establishing lasting, positive habits. Particularly when it comes to metabolic health, nutrition, and weight loss, having a strong and clear intention and desire to implement healthier behaviors are vital .
Furthermore, planning has been shown to be a crucial factor in successful habit formation; a study in 2002 by Milne et al. demonstrated that when participants formulated a clear plan of when and where they would exercise, they were 91% more likely to follow through compared to those who only received motivational material . This concept, known as implementation intention, involves creating a plan beforehand about when and where to act, effectively converting desire into real-world action. So, if you want to make a lasting change, start by creating a specific plan for when and where you will implement your desired habit.
The takeaway? While habit formation is highly individual and varies from person to person, you can set yourself up for success by:
- Maintaining a consistent practice. I.e., the more consistent you are, the more quickly you can turn a behavior into a habit — but missing a day doesn’t mean you’ve taken a step back.
- Experimenting with the time of day. Research suggests that you can form a habit more quickly in the morning than at night.
- Creating a plan. Knowing exactly when and where you’ll practice your desired behavior can increase your chance of consistently doing it and turning it into a habit.
How to form a habit: the Habit Loop
Let's clarify what exactly a habit is: it's a regular and often subconscious pattern of behavior that we engage in repeatedly .
In simpler terms, it's an action or way of behaving that becomes automatic and is done without conscious thought.
Dr. Ann Graybiel, researcher from MIT, has conducted pioneering studies on habit formation. Her work laid the foundation for the "Habit Loop," a three-part cycle also known as the three Rs :
- Reminder: a trigger that prompts our brain to initiate a specific behavior; it could be a specific time of day, a visual cue, or an emotional state.
- Routine: the actual behavior or action that we perform in response to the reminder, such as brushing our teeth, going for a run, or reaching for a snack.
- Reward: the positive reinforcement or satisfaction we experience as a result of completing the routine, such as a sense of accomplishment, physical pleasure, or an emotional boost.
Understanding the three Rs of the Habit Loop can empower us to identify and modify our habits. By altering the reminder or cue, the routine itself, and the reward we receive, we can reshape our habits and cultivate healthier behaviors.
In fact, a fourth R, "Repeat," plays a crucial role, as the positive reinforcement from the reward encourages the habit to persist and become more ingrained over time.
To establish a habit effectively, it's crucial to address all three components of the Habit Loop.
Often, people focus solely on the routine and reward, neglecting the importance of the reminder, or commonly referred to as the trigger. Identifying and utilizing specific cues in your environment to remind of the behavior you’re trying to instill can help solidify the habit loop and increase the likelihood of successful habit formation .
To enhance the likelihood of developing beneficial habits, we must leverage the power of the habit loop to transform isolated actions into long-term, sustainable behaviors.
Here are some habit loop examples that can promote metabolic health:
Reminder: Leave a glass of water next to your bed or your phone, so when you wake up in the morning or reach for your phone, you’re reminded to hydrate.
Routine: Drinking a glass of water upon waking up.
Reward: Feeling refreshed and hydrated, which sets a positive tone for the day.
2. Healthy snacking
Reminder: Placing a fruit bowl or pack of nuts on the kitchen counter as a visual reminder.
Routine: Reaching for a piece of fruit as a snack instead of processed snacks.
Reward: Enjoying the natural sweetness of the fruit and feeling satisfied with a healthier choice.
3. Balancing post-meal blood sugar spike
Reminder: Setting an alarm on your phone as a reminder to take a short walk after lunch.
Routine: Going for a brisk walk for 10-15 minutes.
Reward: Feeling energized, improving digestion, and enjoying a mental break from work.
4. Optimizing sleep for good metabolic health
Reminder: Activate your phone's night mode or set an alarm for a specific time each night to signal the start of your pre-sleep routine.
Routine: When the reminder goes off, put away screened devices and transition to activities such as reading, meditation, or deep breathing exercises to unwind and relax.
Reward: Experience improved sleep quality, waking up feeling refreshed and revitalized. Minimizing exposure to blue light from screens will have a positive effect on melatonin production, your body's sleep hormone which also helps to regulate the body's circadian rhythm and metabolic hormones.
In addition to the three Rs (Reminder, Routine, and Reward), embracing wearable technologies that offer valuable insights into our biology can help identify personalized, healthy habits. In this era of wearables, data-driven insights show significant promise in enhancing the effectiveness of acquiring desired habits .
Using a CGM to build lasting metabolic habits
When it comes to metabolic health, leveraging your own biological data can be a game-changer. Continuous glucose monitors (CGMs) are a powerful tool that provide real-time insights into how your body responds to different foods, exercise, sleep, and other lifestyle factors.
By wearing a CGM, you can observe how specific habits affect your blood glucose levels and make informed decisions about your dietary choices, physical activity, and sleep patterns.
The Veri Method
When you combine the science of habit loops with a CGM, you get the Veri Method - our proven model for developing sustainable habits that promote better metabolic health.
Through real-time glucose data, intuitive scoring, and guidance the Veri app gives you the immediate feedback needed to initiate new, positive habit loops and break old, negative habit loops, without relying on constant motivation and willpower.
- Habit formation is a complex and personal process influenced by various factors; don't fall for common myths like the "21-day habit" rule or rely solely on willpower.
- The duration of habit formation varies greatly among individuals, ranging from a few weeks to several months, while repetition and clear intention are key to success.
- Time of day can influence habit adoption, but the key to successful habit formation lies in building implementation intentions—creating a clear plan of when and where to act—which significantly increases the likelihood of following through.
- Understanding the Habit Loop (Reminder, Routine, and Reward) can empower you to modify habits effectively.
- Leveraging your own biological data through tools like CGMs empowers you to make informed decisions, tailor your habits to your unique needs, and implement personalized changes for metabolic health.