One of the core thematic strands of the Social Brain project is habits. Some great research from Phillipa Lally’s team at UCL demonstrated that it takes 66 days to form a habit.
Today is my 99th day of working at the RSA and I have just realised that a new habit seems to have formed in this time. Until now, I hadn’t thought of my lunchtime behaviour as either habitual or particularly routine. In my head, there’s all manner of lunching possibilities on my doorstep, and really I’m only temporarily buying lunch every day, as what I usually do is bring lunch from home. I tell myself I just haven’t got into the habit of it since I started this job and relocated to London but I’ll get back into the rhythm of it soon.
But, today, I have to admit that my old habit of bringing lunch from home may have had its day, having been usurped by a new one. When I went to get my lunch today, the woman behind the counter said two things which took me by surprise: “You’re a bit late today,” and “See you tomorrow”.
Ok, I’d already recognised that I tend to opt for that particular establishment, and the woman in question is a lovely, smiley person who at some point not long ago started recognising me and greeting me as a familiar customer. So, her talking to me was no surprise. What I had not realised that is that, from her perspective at least, I have a ‘normal time’ for going for lunch, which is sufficiently predictable for her notice and comment that I was ‘late’. And, although, like I say, I recognise that I go to the same place more often than not, I wouldn’t have thought it was regular enough for a member of staff to expect to see me every day.
Habits are behaviours which we perform automatically because they have been performed many times in the past. The repetition of a particular behaviour creates an association between a situation and an action. The situation acts as a cue which prompts a behaviour to be performed automatically. Doing something automatically means doing it without thinking.
Phillipa Lally and her colleagues at UCL found that breaking habits is very difficult. The easiest way of breaking a habit is to control your environment so that you don’t encounter the cue which triggers your habit. They also know that being highly motivated to change a habit doesn’t help much, although it is even harder if you are ambivalent.
What does this mean for my lunchtime behaviour? Well, I can’t really remove the cue from my environment, however you conceive of the cue – which could be my need to eat at lunchtime, my being at the office at lunchtime, or the specific food outlet that I habitually go to. I need to control the environment in a different way. Maybe if I consider the cue as the combined situation of my needing to eat, being at the office and not having brought anything with me, there is scope to change. Essentially what I need to do differently is to bring my lunch in from home.
However, Lally’s team point out that new habits don’t stop old habits from existing. Although new habits can trump old habits once they become stronger influences on behaviour, the old habit is still in place. So, for fear of getting lost in a habits hall of mirrors, my old habit of bringing lunch from home must be lurking somewhere, and although it has latterly been replaced by this new habit of buying lunch, it’s still the older habit, and therefore might stand a good chance of displacing the new one and getting back into pole position.
The season for making resolutions is almost upon us, so after Christmas I’ll have a go at reinstating my old lunchtime habit. We’re back in the office on 3rd January; 66 days after that takes us to 9th March by which time I’ll be able to say whether, in the case of what I have for lunch, new habits die as easily as old ones.