Forming good habits or giving up on bad ones become easier when you take them up in small measures, says Hema Vijay

Obviously, it is as easy to slip into bad habits as it is difficult to break from them. And forging good habits seems such a huge challenge — be it adopting a healthy diet, quitting smoking, giving up binge-eating, sticking to a yoga regimen, executing ‘To do’ lists, watching less television, and perhaps the most challenging of them all, resolving to desist from angry outbursts, self pity, regret, jealousy etc. Is there a sure-fire method to making and breaking habits?

Numbered target

While there is no shortcut, there is a powerful propeller for habit makeovers — the 21-day rule, or its variants such as the 28-day rule, the 35-day rule, etc. “Whatever we do for a substantial number of days tends to become a habit, and might get ingrained in us as automatic behaviour / reactions from then on,” says Puneet Verma, clinical psychologist and behaviour analyst. “Moreover, holding on to a tough lifestyle for a fixed number of days is an easier strategy, because it doesn’t seem as tough as doing it for life.” Incidentally, the 21-day rule is believed to have originated from Maxwell Maltz’s book Psycho Cybernetics where he mentions that ‘It usually requires a minimum of about 21 days to effect any perceptible change in a mental image’.

Habit formation is easier to achieve when taken up in small measure — such as five minutes of yoga every day, rather than a half-an-hour session straight away. “Once you have experienced the rewards of regular yoga, you would want to do more of it,” remarks yoga instructor S. Mallini. Besides, it might be easier to tackle one habit at a time, in the same way that it is easier to break one stick at a time, rather than a bunch. It is also advisable to arm up against the lure of the negative habit. For instance, if anxiety makes you binge-eat, learn a few stress- / anxiety-relieving deep breathing exercises / yoga that you can do whenever you feel anxious, rather than struggle to stay away from food when you get anxious. Likewise, work on associated aspects of the habit too. For instance, if watching a certain television show late at night makes you wake up too late to factor in a yoga session, make it a point to forego that show.

It pays to visualise the consequences of sticking on to a good habit or breaking away from a bad habit. Psychologists term this as ‘wish power’ or ‘vision’ as opposed to ‘will power’. This ‘vision’ can provide a powerful impetus. “It also pays to remember that inherited nature apart, people of great skill, character or conduct have invested efforts in forging positive habits of hard work, forbearance, honesty etc,” says clinical psychologist S. Shankar. “Imagine what you will be five years from now, if you were to persist with a particular habit, rather than simply resolving to quit a bad habit or adopt a good habit.”

Keep going

Meanwhile, keep in mind that kicking off a bad habit may not be a smooth walk to the finish line. As business coach Tom Bartow put it, after the initial few days, the original inspiration to change to a new habit might fade a bit, and during this stage, we might find it especially hard to fight the temptation of getting back to our old negative habits. We might also get discouraged from persevering with the new habit. Bartow suggests that we need to recognise the challenge in this ‘fight thru’ period and resolve to win such moments. He also warns us to stay on higher alert in holding on to the new habit during holidays or other disruptions in our daily-life patterns, when old temptations might attack us when we are off-guard.

Nevertheless, if you do slip up midway, don’t be too hard on yourself. Pick yourself up and get back on track. The power of making or breaking habits is within us. After all, we created those old habits in the first place.


- Whatever we do for a substantial number of days tends to get programmed in us as automatic behaviour/reactions.

- Imagine what we would be five years from now, if we were to persist with a particular habit.

- Habit formation could be easier to achieve when taken up in smaller measure.

- Arm yourself with alternative solutions.

- Work on associated aspects of the habit too.

- Recognise challenges, and stay alert against temptation.

- If you slip up, do pick yourself up and get back on track.