“Character is simply habit long continued.” – Plato.
Acquiring a new habit is like acquiring the keys to a new door. It allows you to enter into a room of unexplored opportunities where you can unlock your potential and access your personal power.
We are drawn to habits because of their practical benefits. They are fairly automatic; take little to no effort to perform, and are enjoyable. They basically allow us to do more with less effort.
However, bad habits are also candidates for this definition. For example, smokers pull out a cigarette, light it up and take a puff in what seems like an orderly automatic fashion. Smokers would also tell you that they find smoking enjoyable and rewarding. But there is a fundamental difference between good and bad habits.
A bad habit like smoking is only enjoyable while the smoker is doing it. It gives the smoker immediate pleasure by filling a (false) need. Notice (if you’re a smoker), then smoking only fills your need but it doesn’t fulfill you. Good habits, however, like having a cup of green tea, is something that is enjoyable while you are doing it and also while you are not doing it.You experience the long term benefits of drinking green tea while you are working, playing, or sleeping. It fulfills you.
Bad habits fill a need, but good habits fulfill you.
So how long does it really take to form a new fulfilling habit?
1. The 21 Day Formula
Based on my experience, I am inclined to say that it takes about 21 days. However, a recent study has described the 21 day formula as a myth. According to Phillippa Lally; a health psychology researcher at University College London, a new habit usually takes a little more than 2 months – 66 days to be exact – and as much as 254 days until it’s fully formed.
The study was based on the behavior of 96 participants who were asked to pick a habit and practice it for 12 weeks. The participants reported to the researcher how automatic their new behavior felt over time. Undoubtedly, the results varied drastically from person to person leading the researcher to claim that automaticity (i.e how automatic the new behavior felt over time) takes between three to twelve times longer than 21 days.
This news sent shock waves across the personal development community leading every personal development blogger to retract all their claims about the 21 day formula and to accept the findings of this research.
2. The Person with Average Motivation as a Case Study
But there’s something deeply troubling about accepting these findings. Empirical research tells us what is. Empirical research tell us how people would behave under certain circumstances and not how they should behave. Hence, accepting these findings means taking other people’s limitations and making them the standard for what’s possible.
That’s not to say acquiring a new habit is a walk in the park. Most people struggle with forming and keeping new habits. They lose motivation over time and in the process find themselves off track. How many times have your tried to become an early riser and failed? How many times have you tried to keep your inbox clean of junk and other emails and failed? How many times have you tried to commit to a daily 20 minute run and failed? So it seems like there is some sense in believing that the habit formation journey is long and arduous and that it might take much longer than 21 days.
But we should not lose sight of people who managed to overcome extraordinary odds in relatively short periods of time. Sometimes it can take a person one crucial moment to stop smoking or drinking and acquire sobriety. It can take a person one instance to decide to write every day and finally finish writing his/her novel. It take can a person one flash of a second to decide to eat healthy food and lose weight. Why aren’t we trying to learn from these people? Why are all these bloggers giving in to the findings of the research? Why has the average person’s experience become our standard for what’s possible? Shouldn’t all these personal development bloggers be the first to think about the findings critically?
3. The Glue to Making New Habits Stick
I believe that habit formation is a function of three key criteria: (1) Level of Commitment, (2) Internal and External Accountability, and the (3) Size of Habit.
1. Commitment: working on a new habit is no easy undertaking, but you have to decide why and how important is that habit to you.
- What difference is it going to make to your day?
- How will that habit help you achieve your goals?
- How will that habit impact your relationships?
Once you’ve answered these questions, you have to formulate your answers in an emotionally captivating language. By articulating them in that way, you are creating a new “narrative” of who you are. You are giving life to your new habit.
Tell yourself this story before you go to bed. These mental image becomes the psychological glue, if you will, that holds you and your new habit together. Without that story, the habit doesn’t stick.
To keep yourself from getting off course, you would benefit from adding sounds, and even sensations of smell and touch to your story as you progress along. You have to see yourself as already practicing your habit and living with its results. You’re not a person who wakes up early, you’re an early riser. You’re a runner. You’re a writer. You’re wealthy. By consciously identifying yourself as such, you’re demanding of yourself to work on the skills that will help you get there. The stronger and the more captivating your reasons are for your new habit, the more quickly you will acquire it and the more robust it’s going to be.
On the other hand, bland and unimaginative stories are easily forgotten. In fact, people who don’t tell themselves captivating stories are likely to lose their motivation so much so that they forget why they decided to take on their new habit in the first place. This happens because the story wasn’t personal enough for the new habit to stick.
2. Accountability: If you could hold yourself accountable internally through your own conscience; and externally through an accountability system like a coach or a social support group, then you can form a habit more quickly than if you didn’t have those systems, and the better these systems, the better the results you will get.
When it comes to holding yourself accountable, it’s imperative that you be your own best friend. You want to encourage yourself to stay on track and remind yourself of how far you’ve gotten. You hold yourself accountable from a deep sense of love and caring to see yourself become the best you can be. That’s very different from the traditional approaches of policing yourself…those approaches (if not used wisely) are counter-productive and they cause you to dislike the habit you’re after and sometimes cause you to go as far as experiencing self-loathing.
But sometimes it can be a real struggle to try to do it all on our own. There is always a support group behind every hero. Getting family members or friends enlisted to help you stay on track can make a dramatic difference in your journey. Most people, however, prefer to work with a professional. In this regard, a coach is an appropriate choice. A coach can give you exact recommendations that are specifically tailored to your needs. As an impartial observer, a coach will honestly tell you how you’re performing and what you need to tweak. So if you’re looking for new ways and shortcuts to overcome obstacles, move past failure, and realize your goals, then working with the right coach can make a distinctive difference to your pursuits.
A coach is a mentor that stops you from stopping yourself and giving up.
3. Size of habit: If your target habit is too big; like running a marathon, then you will not acquire that habit in 21 days. Similarly, if your goal is to write 2000 words daily without the proper training, then it might take you a long time to turn this into an automatic thing.
Break your habits into mini-habits. For example, require yourself to write every day instead of trying to reach a certain word count. The mini-habit of writing is the kind of habit that you can work toward actualizing, while it takes years and years to reach the goal of writing 2000 words a day.
The same thing goes for running – your goal is to want to run every day and have the desire to do so without too much struggle. Once you’re comfortable enough with your habit and you’re able to do it consistently, then you can take it up a notch and set higher goals that can turn into habits.
4. Goal Graduation Strategy
My advice is that your 21 day journey should be a progress report and not simply a promise to do the same thing over and over again. Your focus should be on making progress every single day without struggling too much to do so. That’s what I call the “Goal Graduation Strategy.”
So, instead of promising yourself to run on the treadmill for 30 minutes every day for 21 days, start by running for 10 minutes on the first day (and do restrain yourself if you feel like you want to run more), and the next day you run for 11 minutes, and the day after for 12 minutes, etc. Within 21 days you will be running for a little more than 30 minutes. In 2 months, you will be running for an hour as result of this 1 minute incremental increase.
Be careful not to challenge yourself too much early on. As you grow into your new habit, study yourself and see what is the right challenge for you. If it is too hard, then you won’t make progress and you will lose motivation. So pick a goal that is within your limits. If you’re having an especially tough time (in committing to your run for example), then you can increase your time by just 30 seconds a day. Seconds and minutes will add up quickly and you will surprise yourself by how easy and fun it is. Remember, you have to keep making progress…you can’t expect yourself to run a marathon on the day of the marathon.
5. What to Expect on your 21 Day Plan
- The first 3 – 4 days are a breeze. This is where your motivation is at an all-time high. During those days, you go above and beyond to practice your habit. Your habit is your favorite thing in the world at this stage, then it gradually starts becoming more challenging to stick to your new habit. Most people quit within 10 days.
- On days 4 – 10: fetch images, quotes, memories, videos and tell your new “story” in an emotionally captivating language. This is a day to day struggle. Your task on days 4 to 10 is to reinforce your goals with the power of imagery. Once you pass the 10 day mark, your habit will become less of a challenge to perform.
- On days 11 – 14: focus on how going this far makes you feel. Your task on these days is to note what difference this has made to your body and your day. Talk publicly about it, or start a blog – (see how to start a successful blog). You are 2/3 of the way done. This is a mini-celebration.
- Day 14 – 21: start marking your calendar for how many days you have left to finish your course. Each day you mark off will make you feel really good about how far you’ve gotten. This is the last 1/3 of the course.
- 21 days and after: by this time, your habit should become part of your daily routine. Your focus from here on should be on the long term benefits of keeping this habit part of your daily routine and what further progress you can make if you continue this habit.
Stay focused and stay consistent.