Goodbye 2020. Hello 2021. Another year rolls around and many of us start the year by deciding to embrace a new habit. It may be to eat more healthily, hit 10,000 steps every day, set quality time aside for your family, or pursue a new hobby.
It can be tempting to set resolutions to kick-start another year but by the end of January the majority will have been broken and forgotten. This can be due to misunderstanding around how to form new habits. So let’s take a look at the science: how are habits formed?
So how long does it take to form a habit?
For the last six decades it’s been widely accepted that it takes 21 days to form a habit. However, this figure is based on a misinterpretation. In the 1950s, Dr Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon, observed that it takes “a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell”. These words were captured in his book ‘Psycho-Cybernetics’ which sold over 30 million copies and have incorrectly influenced the self-improvement industry ever since.
More recently, scientific research has revealed that habit formation is a far more complex process. Habit formation depends on the desired behavior change, your personality, and your wider context. It’s now believed it takes more than two months before a new habit becomes engrained – on average 66-days. Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher at University College London, discovered it took anywhere between 18 and 254 days from starting a new habit to doing it automatically.
Key take away: Accept that creating new habits takes time. Commit to the long game and be patient. “Failing” a few days or weeks doesn’t make it a failure – pick it up again and keep going.
How are habits formed?
Your pathway to embedding new habits moves forwards (though sometimes backwards!) through three phases:
- The Honeymoon – The desire to make a specific change in your life or at work usually starts from inspiration. This can be sparked by reading a book, attending a conference, or listening to a podcast. During the honeymoon period your new habit feels easy to implement – no challenges or difficulties. It is, however, inevitable that every honeymoon period will come to an end.
- The Fight Thru – This phase sets in when your inspiration begins to fade, motivation dwindles and reality hits. The struggle between sticking to your new habits and resisting the temptation of your old behaviours arises. This is perfectly natural. The key is to move through this phase by successfully ‘winning’ two or three ‘fight thru’s’. ‘Fight thru’s’ can be won by using these techniques:
- Recognition: It’s essential to recognise there will be moments when your resolve is tried and tested. It can be helpful to mentally acknowledge this situation, or write positive and encouraging notes to yourself. Keep it simple; ‘I have entered the ‘fight thru’, and I need to win a few to move past this’. Winning each ‘fight thru’ makes it easier to win the next. Similarly, if you choose to give up and lose a ‘fight thru’, it becomes easier to lose the next one.
- Question Yourself: Ask yourself ‘How will I feel if I succeed?’ and ‘How will I feel if I fail?’. These two questions firmly place emotion at the centre of attention. Focus on creating positive emotions of optimism, pride, hope, and gratitude compared to negative feelings associated with losing.
- Life Projection: Visualise how your life will be in five years if you do not persevere in making the desired change. Be entirely honest with yourself, create a detailed mental image of yourself in your mind and imagine the associated feelings what life will be like if your fail to change. Then, repeat this mental exercise but focus on success.
- Second Nature – When you’ve overcome the ‘Fight Thru’ it can be a huge relief to finally enter this phase. However, there are three common mistakes which can cause you to move backwards and regress. These are:
- Disruptions: Any significant change to your daily routine can interrupt newly formed habits. Be particularly mindful and extra focused during holidays, weekends, or when meeting with friends.
- Seduction of Success: It can be easy to become complacent after a period of success and let old patterns of behaviour creep back. Making too many exceptions in the application of your new habit can unwittingly shift your back. Renew your commitment even after the habit feels like second nature.
- Discouraging Thoughts: Despite conscientiously following your new habit it might have less impact than expected within a certain time frame. This lack of perceived change or benefit can temper your enthusiasm to continue your new regime.
Habits are time consuming and tricky to embed. However, the knowledge of these techniques combined with determination and perseverance mean you’re set for success.
What habit will you implement in 2021?
Finally, it’s important to focus. So what’s one new habit you’ll try to create in 2021? Here are a few ideas:
- I will stand up to work for 2x 30 min every day
- I will do 30 squats every time I brush my teeth
- I will introduce meeting-free Friday mornings
- I will book two 2-hour blocks every week in my calendar for focused, uninterrupted work
- 3 days per week I will do a “fake commute”, i.e. walk to work even though I’m working from home
Pick one, keep it simple, and most importantly – enjoy the journey.