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Want to make behavioral changes that last? Play by your brain’s rules.

The popular myth is that a new habit forms after 21 to 28 days. However, psychology research from the European Journal of Social Psychology indicates that it takes around 66 days to truly ingrain a new habit in our brain. According to several other studies in Neuropsychology, it takes at least 42 days (6 weeks) to practice and repeat new behaviors before it has become a habit and feels comfortable.

Anyhow, all studies demonstrate that you need a considerate amount of time to consolidate and integrate the new brain structures (as a result of your behavioral change) with the existing neural networks. It is the brain’s neuroplasticity that is behind all this. Neurons that fire together, wire together and consequently the neural pathways become established and stronger.

Using this knowledge about your brain makes it easier to develop new behavior. Below we describe some insights that can help you effectively form goal-oriented habits.

Tips for creating new habits

• Make sure you know why you want to change your behavior. The journey ahead may be easy or it may be tough, but as long as you are constantly reminded of why you want it in the first place, it surely will help you stay on the right track. Keep always in mind why the new behavior is rewarding for you.

• Start with small steps or mini-habits. Develop very small positive behavior that you force yourself to do every day; a mini habit is "too small to fail".

• Find a person (someone you really respect) to support you and give you positive attention.

• You can best stop your old habits by replacing it by new behavior. Repeat this new behavior in the same setting. Did you always check your cellphone first thing in the morning? Now, for example, do two stretching exercises while laying in bed.

• Provide a good preparation and a practical plan. Eliminate the temptations that provoke automatic responses. For example, buy yourself an alarm clock and leave your cellphone in the living room.

• Consider the successes you have achieved and be proud of this. Is there still something wrong now and then? Give yourself feedback and adjust if necessary.

What to do during fallbacks?

Now and than a relapse is inevitable. That's part of behavioral change. As investigations also showed, a one-off relapse does not have to affect your new habit. The most important thing is how you manage it.

• Stop, watch and listen to yourself. What happened? Under what circumstances did this happen? What triggered it?

Stay calm. Realize that one mistake is not the end of the world.

Realize that one mistake is not the end of the world.

• Replace negative (non-helping) thoughts with more constructive thoughts. Instead of 'One mistake is total failure' you can better think: 'It is normal that it occasionally goes wrong. That is no problem, as long as I correct this and continue with my plan.'

• Renew your commitment. Think about your motivation. Why did you want to change your behavior again?

• Learn from this moment and make a plan for next relapses. For example, eliminate the things that triggered it or next time call the person who supports you on this to ask for some positive ideas.

To make behavioral changes that last, start playing by your brain's rules and achieving your goals isn't so hard.

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Marianne Slotboom

Marianne is a strategic partner and practical developer of human behavior that helps leaders, teams and organizations become more focused and effective, elevating their value to customers. In 2015, Marianne founded Yellow Training to answer the call for more inspirational and creative leadership in the modern workplace.

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