Have you ever heard that it takes 21 days to form a habit?
Of course, we all have.
But interestingly, while we’ve all jumped on that 21 day bandwagon and preached it like it was gospel …
…it had no scientific truth or merit whatsoever.
NONE (the real answer is at the bottom of this blog)
Sorry if that disappoints, but it’s just the truth. And there’s actually scientific research to confirm this.
Now, we will say that 21 days is certainly a great start. And every day you successfully work on a habit is another day closer to making that habit permanent.
But according to some scientists at the UK Health Behavior Research Center in London, it actually takes a lot longer.
In their study, they looked at how long it took people to perform an action automatically.
Kind of an odd outcome. Studying a habit. Right?
How Do You Define a Habit?
Habits are behaviors which are performed automatically because they have been performed frequently in the past.
They can be positive, like exercising daily.
Or negative, like smoking.
Either way, they’re habits – actions that are done automatically.
Basically, the repetition creates a mental association between the cue and action which means that when the cue is encountered the behaviour is performed automatically.
Automaticity has a number of components, one of which is lack of thought.
Interesting. Think about your daily habits.
What do YOU do daily? We all have many, many habits of course.
To create a habit you need to repeat the behavior in the same situation.
And as we all know, breaking habits is very difficult.
The easiest way is to control your environment so that you do not encounter the cue which triggers your habit. It is difficult to break any habit even when you are motivated to do so. If you are ambivalent about breaking it then you will be less likely to succeed.
New habits do not stop the old habits from existing; they just have to become stronger influences on behavior.
And the good news from the study is that missing one opportunity to change a habit doesn’t significantly change the habit forming process. But if that one missed opportunity turns into another and another … it’s like a snowball and the people who were very inconsistent in performing the behavior did not succeed in making habits.
Unfortunately it’s not quite known what level of consistency there needs to be to form a permanent habit, but I’m sure we’ll ultimately learn that over time.
The advice the authors did give is that when someone wants to form a habit they should specify clearly what they will do and in what situation and try to do this consistently.
Notice here there is no mention of the endpoint goal but rather the process to reach that goal.
For example, rather than “I will lose x pounds” a process goal would be “I will eat 1 apple with breakfast every single day.”
Then, while working on that process goal, you can ultimately add to it. And the more and more positive processes that a person has, the more successful or likely they will be to make a habit permanent.
And the length of time this takes, according to this research?
So work on it for 21 days, then 21 more … and 21 more (plus a couple). And THEN you can officially call it a habit.
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