Behaviours that are performed automatically, triggered by environmental prompts such as cookie jars and TV remotes, are known as habits, and one secret to becoming less sinful is to acquire healthier ones. This means repeatedly performing a desirable behaviour (e.g. going for a run) at the same time or in the same place, every week or every day. Well, that’s the theory. Surprisingly little research has actually been conducted on habit formation as it unfolds. Phillippa Lally at UCL’s Health Behaviour Unit bucked the trend last year when she and her colleagues asked 96 participants to keep a daily diary of their success at forming a new healthy habit. The main finding was that the average time it took for a new habit to reach peak automaticity was 66 days – far longer than previous estimates. The good news was that a single missed day had little long-term impact on successful habit formation, although repeated omissions did have a cumulative detrimental effect on the maximum automaticity that was reached. [further detail].
This post is part of the Research Digest’s Sin week. Each day for Seven days we’ll be posting a confession, a new sin and a way to be good. The festivities coincide with the publication of a feature-length article on the psychology behind the Seven Deadly Sins in this month’s Psychologist magazine.