As Aristotle said, ‘we are what we repeatedly do'. In a sense, it’s our habits that shape our lives, and ourselves, more than anything else. Given what we know about the incredible role sleep plays in our lives, setting and maintaining healthy sleep habits can have far reaching positive benefits every day.
You may have heard that 21 days is the ‘magic number’ when it comes to embedding a new habit into your life. But life can get in the way of forming good sleep habits, so results can actually take much longer to achieve.
A scientific study by health psychology researcher at London’s University College, Phillippa Lally – showed that it takes an average of 66 days for a habit to become automatic. If two long months sounds like an extreme endurance test, take heart. Her research showed that falling off the wagon occasionally wasn’t the end of the world, just as long as you didn't make a ‘habit’ of it.
Although we're not psychologists, we have looked at studies and advice from habit experts, who seem to agree on a few principles that can help you make positive new habits a part of your life.
Slow and steady wins
Impatience to see results and doing too much, too soon, is the way many good habits get derailed. That's because the sheer effort depletes your energy and willpower, making you more likely to quit. We’ve all been there, haven’t we? The trick is to start with one habit – and make it so small that it’s easy to create a new pattern. Aim to establish a solid, automatic habit first, then increase your effort, or add another.
Plan to not fail
Let’s say you want to start rising earlier, and spend that precious time exercising. Your alarm wakes you at 6am. At this groggy point, it’s too easy for your brain to make excuses, and for your finger to hit the snooze button. But you've promised to meet a friend at 7am for a workout. So you get up, get dressed and leave the house. Luckily, you’ve also prepared the night before by setting out your exercise gear and a water bottle – so you’re ready to go! Commitment to someone else can be the accountability you need, while being extra organised reduces ‘friction’ when it matters.
Stack to stick with it
Linking the habit you're building with one that's already automatic and easy is called ‘habit stacking'. Start with an established habit and add the new one. For example, your ‘stack’ plan could be: ‘While I’m cleaning away the dinner dishes, I’ll put the kettle on and make a cup of chamomile tea.’ Or… ‘After I’ve brushed my teeth, I’ll do gentle stretches for five minutes.’
Being specific helps your good sleep habits stick. Research shows you're more likely to follow through if you've established the details around your habit – including when, where, what you plan to do, as well as frequency. Instead of vaguely stating ‘I should meditate more', clarify your good intention with ‘Each evening after I brush my teeth, I'm going to meditate in a spot in my bedroom for 10 minutes.'
Your environment matters
Rather than rely on your reserves of willpower alone – tweaking your surroundings will support better habits. This will reduce the energy and conscious thought it takes to make a better choice, while making it more difficult to keep up habits that don’t serve you. For example, if the TV in the bedroom is undermining your ability to regularly fall asleep at 10pm, remove it as a temptation. Instead, you could make sure you have some relaxing reading material by the bedside.
Be kind – especially to yourself
Rather than berating yourself when you ‘fail’, try to reward yourself when you succeed. Studies show that celebrating progress supports motivation by activating the reward centres in the brain. This, in turn, triggers positive emotions and a sense of accomplishment – reinforcing good habits and encouraging new ones, in a virtuous circle.
How do you make good habits stick? Please share your tips on our social channels. We’d love to hear from you.