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Written by Kate Witteveen

Making a big change is never easy. We usually need many repetitions before something becomes automatic, with research suggesting it takes an average of 66 days to form a new habit.

The good news is, this is 24 days less than the 90 days previously suggested. The bad news is, it is still more than two months of consistency before you can assume you have successfully implemented your new habit.

In the book “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg describes the basic process by which a habit is formed. He calls it “the habit loop”, the components of which include:

  • a cue (the prompt that tells you to do the thing you want to become your habit);
  • the routine (the habit); and
  • the reward (something you value that comes as a result of the habit).

According to this model, if you pair the cue, routine and reward often enough, the routine will become automatic.

This habit loop is simple but astonishingly effective for creating and maintaining new habits. Understanding this loop is also helpful in undoing many addictive behaviour patterns.

To change your habit, you choose a different routine to be triggered by the cue and accompanied by the reward.  

Understanding how to use the habit loop to increase your success with positive habits and undo patterns that are no longer serving you is a powerful tool in your psychological toolkit. However, it is not enough.

For a habit to become truly automatic, you need to accompany the behaviours with a belief. This belief should relate to the plausibility of your habit becoming your new normal.

To add even more oomph to your behaviour change, you can add a big, “why” into the equation.

When you pair the belief that you can (and want to!) make the change, with a compelling reason why it is important to you, and then create your habit loop, you lay the foundation for a powerful habit-forming process.

So, if, for example, you are interested in adopting a plant-based diet, but it feels like a big and overwhelming task, here are a few tips for giving yourself the best possible chance of establishing a sustainable habit.

1. Get really clear about why you want to make this change.

The first step is to be sure about why this change is important to you.

  • Is it for your health?
  • Is it for the planet?
  • Is it because of your beliefs about animal rights?
  • Is it something else? If so, what is it?

Whatever your reason, make sure you know what it is and how important it is to you. That clarity will be crucial when the novelty has worn off and you may feel tempted to go back to eating the way you always have.

2. Design your habit loop.

When you know why you want to convert to a plant-based diet, the next step is to design your habit loop.

The easiest way to do this when it comes to changing your eating habits is to plan ahead and make sure you have plenty of appealing options available for when the inevitable trigger (hunger!) occurs.

If you have to stop and think about what you are going to eat every time you get hungry, you will revert to what is familiar and easy.

So, save yourself the struggle by creating a menu plan, pre-preparing as much as you can ahead of time, and having easily accessible snacks that align with your plant-based aspirations.

Adding in a reward will also help to reinforce your new way of eating, so creating a way of celebrating each plant-based choice is a great idea.

It may be a simple acknowledgement of your choice by pausing before you eat your meal to appreciate what you have chosen, or it could be something more visual or tangible. For example, tracking your food in the way of a diary can be a great way of reminding yourself of the tremendous progress you have made.

The caveat around this is that is vital that you set yourself realistic goals and don’t use your tracking as a form of judgement.

It is important to remember that habits take time to form, and that the pareto principle of 80/20 applies in all aspects of life.

3. Be realistic, patient, and compassionate

This third element is the one that is most likely to be overlooked, but holds the key to your ultimate success.

Our brains are wired to keep us safe, which means we feel most comfortable with the familiar. If we try to introduce too much change too quickly, we will find creative ways to sabotage ourselves.

As such, creating a new habit requires us to recognise that these things take time, and are best done incrementally.

For example, choosing one meal per day to be plant-based may be enough to get you started; or you could choose one day per week to go meat-free, and see how you go.

However you choose to make your change, it is essential that you are patient and compassionate with yourself. Change can be hard and scary, and acknowledging the efforts you have put in is a vital ingredient in that will give you the impetus to persist, even when it feels hard.

Aim for progress, not perfection, and commit to the process.

Happy habit forming!

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