The Science of Habits: How to Train Your Mind and Change Your Life

We all have some vision of our Best Self: You know, the one who wakes up early for some mindful meditation, gentle stretches, and handwritten correspondence with a healthy cup of green tea.

Your Real Self, on the other hand? Maybe not so picture-perfect.

If only good intentions built good habits.

Everyday patterns are surprisingly hard to change, thanks to the way our minds work. Luckily, habit formation is a well-studied topic, and there are some basic tools and tricks to help you retrain your behavior.  

Whether you’re trying to break a bad habit or create some good ones, the science and psychology of habit formation can offer a framework to help you see it through.

Icon of science molecules

The science of habit formation

There’s a key factor in our favor when it comes to changing habits: neuroplasticity. That means that the brain is extremely malleable, and we are constantly able to learn new things and new patterns.

But making change takes active effort. Everyday life is a jumble of habits that we can breeze through without much thought, but changing a habit requires work outside of our ordinary patterns. It’s one more thing to add to your busy life, and that’s where the psychological challenge comes in.

Icon of a brain

The psychology of habit formation

Being intentional takes more focus and effort than operating on auto-pilot. So there’s an important psychological factor to making a new action into a habit: the reward.

Habits need some sort of payoff in order to stick. The most lasting habits provide some kind of reward (think: the pleasure of watching TV, or the instant gratification of fast food). Depending on the kind of habit you’re trying to make or break, you could try marking off a habit tracker and rewarding yourself with a new purchase.

The science of
habit formation

There’s a key factor in our favor when it comes to changing habits: neuroplasticity. That means that the brain is extremely malleable, and we are constantly able to learn new things and new patterns.

But making change takes active effort. Everyday life is a jumble of habits that we can breeze through without much thought, but changing a habit requires work outside of our ordinary patterns. It’s one more thing to add to your busy life, and that’s where the psychological challenge comes in.

The psychology
of habit formation

Being intentional takes more focus and effort than operating on auto-pilot. So there’s an important psychological factor to making a new action into a habit: the reward.

Habits need some sort of payoff in order to stick. The most lasting habits provide some kind of reward (think: the pleasure of watching TV, or the instant gratification of fast food). Depending on the kind of habit you’re trying to make or break, you could try marking off a habit tracker and rewarding yourself with a new purchase.

Healthier habits start with hydration.

Up to 75% of American adults are living with chronic dehydration. If you struggle with headaches, fatigue, and diminished focus, you might too! This year, start a healthy new habit and track your progress with Nuun’s 30-Day Hydration Kit.

Habit Q&A

What is habit formation?

Habit formation occurs when actions are so consistent that they become automatic or subconscious. This process requires repetition over an extended period of time, from weeks to even months, which is why habit formation and habit change are so challenging to stick with.

Does it really take 21 days to build a habit?

It sounds great in theory, but there’s nothing magical about the 21-day mark. This myth originated in a 1960s self-help book called Psycho-Cybernetics, where Dr. Maxwell Maltz wrote that people can boost their self-image through positive thinking patterns in just 21 days. You may be able to establish a simple habit in this amount of time, such as drinking a glass of water with breakfast, but more involved actions will likely take longer to solidify into habits.

How do you change bad habits?

To change bad habits, it helps to understand what drives them. Try taking a step back to identify your triggers, your routine, and the payoff you receive from the habit you’d like to break. The more you understand these three factors, the more effectively you can replace them with something more positive. A satisfying reward is key, and it may take trial and error to find what works for you.

Habit formation occurs when actions are so consistent that they become automatic or subconscious. This process requires repetition over an extended period of time, from weeks to even months, which is why habit formation and habit change are so challenging to stick with.

So…how long does it take to build a habit?

As with most things in science and in life, the answer is: it depends. Your goal, approach, strategies, and commitment will all influence how long it takes you to build a habit successfully. With so many variables in play, there is no way to predict how long it will take, and it may be a process of trial and error until you find what works for you.

"Every time you try to start a new habit or break an old habit, you’re giving your brain a valuable workout."

Woman working at a desktop computer with Nuun and a waterbottle

"Every time you try to start a new habit or break an old habit, you’re giving your brain a valuable workout."

This might sound discouraging, but take heart: Regardless of the outcome, the effort alone is always worth it. Trying new things is healthy for the brain and vital for lifelong mental acuity, so every time you try to start a new habit or break an old habit, you’re giving your brain a valuable workout.

Even if you never make it to that Best Self of your dreams, every effort along the way is a gift to your long-term well-being.

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