To consistently improve yourself, you’ll occasionally want to make behavioral changes. Sometimes, this is easy. You decide what you want to alter and then do so. Other times, you might feel challenged in your efforts to change, even if the change is for the better.
Habits are something you do automatically without thinking about it. They are a part of your routine and so contribute to who you are. They set the tone for your life. Good habits help you reach your goals. What goals have you set for yourself? What habits can you form to support achieving them?
What can you do to make permanent changes in your behavior? If you are having trouble sticking to new ways of doing things how do you go about establishing a new habit?
Forming Habits: The Latest Research
We’ve all heard that we must repeat a behavior for a certain number of days to establish a habit. You might even have applied this information by marking off days on your calendar until you passed that last “magic” day, as you tried to form healthier practices in your life. However, recent research disputes what we once thought was necessary to form a habit.
Have you followed the 21 days to form a habit idea and later found yourself reverting back to where you started? Where did the 21 days idea come from?
Back in the 1050’s Maxwell Maltz was a plastic surgeon and he observed that it took a minimum of 21 days for a patient to get used to seeing their new self after plastic surgery. This caused him to observe his own timeline for changing behavior and he noticed it took him 21 days to form a habit. He concluded it takes a minimum of 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to form. He published his findings and from there on everyone accepted the idea that it takes 21 days to form a habit. The word minimum of 21 days had been left out as it spread. It was easy and motivating to think that’s all it took. And a myth was born. The problem was that Maltz was simply observing what was around him and was not making a statement of fact.
What’s the real answer and is there science to back it up?
If you want to be realistic with your expectations, the truth is it may take you anywhere between 2 months to 8 months to change your behavior – not 21 days.
Researcher Phillippa Lally and others at University College London determined that you actually must do an activity for 66 days in a row before it becomes a habit! Although how long it takes for a behavior to become automatic depends on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances. They found that if you want to do a behavior automatically, you have to repeat it daily 66 times, consecutively. This study was published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.
Lally, et al also discovered that when first forming a habit, the behavior is cue-dependent. This means that in order to carry out a behavior you want to establish as a habit, you require exposure to a cue that serves to “remind” you to perform the action. Such cues can be either situational, (such as your environment or location) or contextual (based on something else that you do).
- Situational example: When you rise in the morning and enter the bathroom, you probably see your toothbrush or your sink. Those objects serve as cues for you to brush your teeth.
- Contextual example: Every morning before you eat breakfast, you want to remember to eat a piece of fruit. Your cue for this is getting out of bed in the morning or reaching the time of day when you’re about to eat breakfast.
Also relevant to forming a habit is consistency. Although you can skip a day, the research recommends you go right back to performing the desired action. Even though the researchers admit that they can’t say exactly how many times in 66 days you can skip and still form a habit, they do stress if you’re too inconsistent, the behavior won’t become automatic.
How to Establish a Habit: A Quick List
Based on the research:
- Clarify what habit you want to establish. For example, “I want to increase my vegetable servings to 5 a day” or “I will walk 30 minutes a day.”
- Commit to repeating the behavior every day for 66 days. If you already know you’re taking a vacation in 3 or 4 weeks, now might not be the time to work on forming a habit. Think of developing a new habit as a process and focus on the action and the outcome.
- Consider what will be your cue. Will you see some object at home or will there be a time of day when you do something already? Just trusting yourself to remember to do the new behavior during your busy day may not be effective. Cues are potent reminders to help you as you work on bettering yourself.
- Think about the location. The location at which you perform the behavior matters. Will you be at home when you do the new activity? At the office? If you can stick with the same location, at least until the habit forms, you’re more likely to be successful.
- Be consistent. Refrain from skipping the behavior during the time of establishing the habit, if you can. The research actually found that missing one opportunity did not really affect the habit-forming process. Just develop strategies to get right back on track.
- Notice when the activity becomes automatic. You’ll know a habit has been formed when you’ve reached the point where your day seems lacking if you don’t perform the behavior. Success, at last!
Now you have science to apply when you want to establish a habit. No more guesswork! Just 66 days of dedication and reminders, and you’ll be well on your way to a better you.
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