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Forming a habit is a marathon, not a sprint

Start small, the 66th time's the charm — and other insights from the world of science

By Nara Schoenberg, Tribune Newspapers

2:36 PM EST, December 7, 2011

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I tried for years to do two simple things: brush my teeth for two minutes every night and floss.

Let's just say the results were uninspiring.

And then I took my kids in for their dental checkup, and the hygienist gave us two little plastic hourglasses — one blue, one green. I made my kids brush until the sands of time passed through an hourglass, indicating two minutes had elapsed. Then I started using an hourglass myself. I would spot one perched on the sink, turn it over, brush and then floss.

I didn't notice much of a change until the night, not too long ago, when I decided it was late and I could ditch the dental routine just this once — and before I knew it I was standing in front of the bathroom mirror like a zombie slave of the American Dental Association, my teeth squeaky clean and a piece of mint-flavored floss in my hand.

Seems I had stumbled into a good formula for forming a healthy habit.

"The general principle is, try and keep it simple in terms of what you want to do, try to do it each time you encounter (the triggering event), just keep doing it, and make sure you're realistic in what you expect the behavior to be like and what its consequences will be," says Benjamin Gardner Sood, a psychologist who lectures in motivation, habits and health at University College London.

"If that's all in place, then I'm very confident that you will form a habit."

That's not to say that forming a habit is easy. If it were, we would all be eating our green vegetables, exercising regularly and flossing with great abandon. But intentional habit creation is possible, and though research on human habit formation is still in its early stages, studies that have come out in recent years provide insights and suggest basic guidelines.

One of the places I went right in the case of flossing — and had all too often gone wrong in the past — was to choose a behavior that was triggered by a regularly occurring outside event.

In animal research conducted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Ann Graybiel and her colleagues, rodents received start signals, ran mazes and reaped food rewards. At first, neurons in the animals' brains fired fairly constantly throughout the maze-running process, but as the animals learned how to correctly run the mazes and their behavior became more automatic, neuron activity concentrated at the very beginning of the process (when the animal received the start signal) and at the very end, suggesting that the start signal was playing a key role in triggering the habit, and the reward was vital to its completion.

Similarly, I seem to have needed a start signal to cue my automatic behavior. I'd had little success when I assumed that a two-minute brushing habit could be triggered by, well, my repeated decision to brush. Seeing the hourglass by the sink every night at bedtime was enough of a reminder to turn over the hourglass, which in turn did get me on track to brushing for two minutes.

I got my small but consistent reward — clean-feeling teeth and a sense of accomplishment — and eventually it was hard not to turn the hourglass or brush once I'd done it.

Over a fairly long period, probably more than a year, the brushing and subsequent flossing became very consistent and — bingo — I was behaving as predictably as a lab rat.

I probably owed my success, in part, to my choice of habit. In a 2011 study of human volunteers in the European Journal of Social Psychology, researchers found evidence that simpler behaviors (drinking a glass of water after breakfast) are more easily converted into habits than more complex ones such as exercising.

Similarly, M.J. Ryan, an executive coach and author of "This Year I Will...: How to Finally Change a Habit, Keep a Resolution, or Make a Dream Come True," says to focus on one specific thing that you're truly motivated to change. It's not enough to say, "I want to be organized," she says. You have to whittle that down to something along the lines of, "I want to take 10 minutes every day to straighten up my desk."

The 2011 study in the European Journal of Psychology found that for a subset of 96 volunteers, it took a median time of 66 days to form a new habit. The total time it took for a behavior to become habit ranged from 18 to 254 days. That's a marathon, not a sprint, and experts say motivation is key; you've got to pick something that you really want to do and that offers a genuinely rewarding outcome.

For one of Ryan's clients, who was trying to quit smoking, a breakthrough moment came when he reached a deeper and more concrete understanding of his motivation: "My dad died in his 60s, and I want to live long enough to retire on a beach in Hawaii."

Along the same "know thyself" lines, you want to choose a goal that's realistic and comfortable for you. In effect, it's better to resolve to go for a walk every day after lunch and actually do it than to resolve to go for a run every day, get frustrated and disappointed after the first attempt, and give up.

Plus, Gardner Sood says, when you actually manage to do something healthy for the first time, that can really boost your confidence and make you more likely to do it again.

Experts also advise having a coping plan, in which you brainstorm potential obstacles that may arise and come up with ways to surmount them. ("If my friend wants me to skip my noon walk and go to lunch, I'll make a coffee date with her for later in the afternoon.")

You'll know you've formed a habit when it feels strange not to take that walk or drink that glass of water.

Or if you find yourself staring in the mirror, blank-eyed, with clean teeth and a string of used dental floss in your hand.

Breaking a habit

Emboldened by my success in establishing a flossing habit, I asked for expert assistance in breaking my snacking-while-channel-surfing habit.

Psychologist James Claiborn, author of "The Habit Change Workbook: How to Break Bad Habits and Form Good Ones," suggested that I consider what I'm getting out of my mindless snacking, under what circumstances I do it and whether there's a more healthful habit that might offer the same rewards.

Since the snacking was giving me a little mood boost and a little selfish "me" time at the end of a busy day, I tried a minor beauty routine which only made me feel, well, ready to snack. Since I tend to eat when I'm bored by what's on TV, I tried watching shows I actually wanted to see. That was a little better, but not much.

Claiborn suggested that I keep a record of when I eat while watching TV and why, which I couldn't make myself do, but I did have a breakthrough of sorts one morning when I was taking a shower. The breakthrough went something like this: "Hey, I like taking a shower. I get a little mood boost from taking a shower. This is selfish 'me' time."

I switched shower time to the evening, after the kids were in bed, and — lo and behold — emerged with zero interest in hitting the refrigerator.

Now if only I can repeat that result 65 more times, I may have a new habit.

nschoenberg@tribune.com