Dr Jane McNicholas on Transforming Habits
We interviewed Dr Jane McNicholas, the creator of our recent Series called Transforming Habits, about her own habits and asked her for some top habit transforming tips.
1. What is the most productive/positive habit you have in your life?
Without a doubt, the most productive and positive habit I have is regular exercise. From being someone who avoided Physical Education at all costs at school, I developed a good exercise habit in my early 20s and have had it since. I realised that it wasn't exercising that I had an aversion to at school, it was team sports. One important factor when implementing a positive habit is to make sure that it is something that you can do, that is helpful to you, and is also realistic. My positive exercise habit developed when I discovered running. The benefits of running have always been evident to me, including better physical and mental health. Of course, there are days when this habit slips (torrential rain tends to put me off) but as soon as I get back out I'm immediately reminded of the value of this habit.
2. What is one habit you want to overcome?
It's always difficult to think of unhelpful habits that should be overcome, but I think in my case it has been pairing a cup of tea with a sweet treat! Thankfully I'm not much of a tea drinker, but it is still undoubtedly an unhelpful habit. Since writing the Transforming Habits Series for Unmind I've actually become more aware of it and have been working on replacing that evening cup of tea with water instead, thus extinguishing the association.
3. What would you say is the most interesting piece of research you've come across relating to habits?
Whilst researching this Series I was really intrigued by a study that found that changing a habit requires approximately 66 days of repetition. I think this piece of research will be very helpful for anyone engaging with this Series. Having the knowledge that it takes this length of time to make a behaviour automatic will help plan for behaviour change in a realistic manner. When reading this research I came across a reference to a myth that habits form within 21 days, which is not true. Knowing and planning for a 66 day period will really help with setting realistic expectations and then feeling the success and achievement when managing to change habits. I hope others find this research as interesting as I did.
4. Why does it seem easier to develop negative habits than create positive ones?
This is a tricky question and would probably require a whole Series to answer it!
Very briefly, though, negative habits are easier to develop because they often trigger immediate rewards in the brain (think the sugar rush from a can of coke) whereas the rewards that positive habits deliver are generally only experienced later down the line (think glass of water). When our brain repeatedly experiences immediate rewards following a certain behaviour, regardless of the impact this behaviour might have on us in the future, it soon begins to automate the behaviour under specific conditions. For example, this might be why someone develops a habit of reaching for a can of coke instead of a glass of water during a mid-afternoon slump at work. For the same reason, tying an immediate reward to a healthy behaviour you’d like to turn into a habit makes it much more likely that the habit will stick!
5. How do our habits influence our mental health?
I guess this one depends on the habit in question. Having habitual behaviours relating to well-being and self-care is certainly going to promote positive mental health. In addition, positive habits may also double up as coping mechanisms during times of stress, e.g. exercise, meditation, healthy eating, etc. In the same way, negative habits may negatively influence your mental health. Especially if you have a habit that may give you pleasure in the short term, but you know won’t be good in the long term.
6. What is your number one tip for cultivating positive habits in our lives?
For me, without a doubt, the number one tip is to pair a new habit with a well-established behaviour. I have discussed this in the Series, but it is worth repeating here. If you want to start something new, be smart about it. If you would like to incorporate eating more fruit into your diet, pair it with an existing meal. If you would like to start doing sit-ups every day, think about doing them immediately after another established habit, for example brushing your teeth. Pairing a new habit with an existing one provides the natural prompt and reminder that you may need.