“Sow a thought, and you reap an act; sow an act, and you reap a habit; sow a habit, and you reap a character; sow a character, and you reap a destiny.”
These wise words (often interchangeably attributed to Gandhi, Ralph Waldo Emerson, or Charles Reade) are the perfect description of the power of habits in our lives.
We become what we do.
Can you count how many habits you have? Me neither! While some may be healthy — like brushing our teeth every morning, or waking up at the same time every day — there are, of course, many other habits that we may try to change (sometimes to no avail) or to get rid of. Like, say, automatically checking our phones when we eat or easily skipping exercise after a long day.
Who has ever tried to change their lives in some way? Maybe quitting something or creating a healthy routine? Most people would agree it’s tough to change habitual, patterned behavior. The energy required to keep up new habits, not just in action but in motivation, is taxing. It’s no wonder we easily fall back on what we know.
A new year is a great time to consider how you could maximize your chance of success in your resolutions. Did you know that up to 50% of all people will set resolutions that aim to benefit their lives in some way?1 How many of those do you think are kept? Take your own experience as an example…
So, how can you harness the power of creating and reshaping habits to really get the most out of life and actually make the changes stick? This is where the science comes in.
Researchers have looked at the area of habit formation and behavior changes in a number of ways, so that we can have a better idea on how to best make these changes, which will ultimately lead to success in many areas of our lives.
Want to learn the insider tricks on creating healthy habits and cleansing away those you don’t need anymore?
First, let’s look at what a habit is.
Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business and a New York Times Business reporter, has delved deep into the area of habit formation. With every repetition of an action, according to Duhigg, “there’s a thickening of neural pathways. It’s more automatic the third time than the first, and even more automatic the 21st time. Every single time you do it, it gets easier and easier, and eventually you cross the line in the sand where it feels automatic and it’s an almost thoughtless activity.”2
In short, a habit is an activity that, when repeated enough times, becomes automatic. We don’t have to consciously will and think ourselves into doing the action, or why we are doing it; it just becomes a part of our everyday routine.
Think about getting dressed in the morning. Do you have to remind yourself, “Oh, I better remember to get dressed today?” Of course not. We just do. We’ve been doing it from the time we were taught as a toddler that wearing clothes is what you do. This is an example of a deeply ingrained habit.
For new habits that we wish to create, it is not just about performing a new action, it is also about re-patterning an old action. We replace old habits with new ones, which is where it gets complicated. Not only are we working with making new pathways and automatic behavior, but we are working against the energy of those that are already there and strong in us.
“You can’t eradicate a habit,” says Duhigg. “You can only change it, because once the neural pathways are there, you’re not able to ignore them completely.” You noticed what was there before: The cue (maybe stress), and what it leads to (maybe overeating), and instead create a new response to the stress (going for a walk). In this case, you have to be aware of what the old habit was in order to choose to do the new one.
Have you ever heard that it takes 21 days to form a new habit? (This one has been floating around since the 1950s!3) This phrase, often claimed as truth, is actually a misinterpretation of what plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz once concluded. After noticing interesting pattern among his patients, he noted that for those receiving an operation, it generally took them around 21 days or more to get accustomed to seeing the new change in their faces. The same happened with amputation: Maltz noticed that adjustment to the new sensation took at least 21 days. He concluded later that “these, and many other commonly observed phenomena, tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.” Notice that he said a MINIMUM of 21 days. And, too, notice that it was in one area of inquiry, rather than about healthy eating, exercise and other lifestyle habits.
Somewhere between the 1950s and now, people latched onto this “21-day rule” as fact. Lucky for us, recent research has provided a clear idea of the time it really takes for habit formation.
Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher from the University College London, conducted an experiment to look at how long it took to form a habit.4 Results ultimately showed that it took more than two months for the behavior to become an automatic habit. (The result, of course, varied with age, personality and the context of the subjects’ lives, with the time ranging from 18 to 254 days.)
Interestingly, the study also showed that if the participants missed an opportunity to complete the activity, this did not negatively affect the habit formation process. Which means that making mistakes every now and then isn’t going to ruin all the hard work.
The takeaway? If you’re looking to form a new habit, know that 21 days is not the definite marker of success. For some people and contexts, it may take quite a few months to ingrain this in your psyche. So basically, stick with it for as long as you need until you no longer think about it anymore. Automatic behavior is habit, and that’s what you’re eventually looking to find. And if you miss a day, no sweat.
On that not, here are six foolproof ways to ensure you form that habit.
Be intentional. Another study in the realm of habits (and how to make them stick) looked at the concept of implementation intentions.5 Basically, this means that not only should we be clear on the habit which we’d like to create, but also become more prepared for what it’ll look like. Which means, when we perform it and how. This keeps us accountable in that we have a plan for making this habit stick. We don’t just say to ourselves “work out in the morning”. We create a deeper intention to get it done by planning to, say, run Tuesday mornings at 7am.
Specificity is key. Remember: It may not be “just enough” to have the action you’d like to do in your mind. Get clear on when you’d do it, how it would happen, and you’re less likely to create barriers and excuses to turn it into a habit. If you are looking into when you should make this habit a part of your routine, and you have choice about the time (rather than the habit being something like “going to bed at an early hour”) then take a look at the science behind the best time to implement a habit.
Find the best time. Both studies and anecdotal evidence say that morning is key. One study looked at the effects of the circadian (sleep) rhythm in relation to the amount of cortisol in the body in the context of people aiming to create new habits.6 The cortisol hormone in a healthy adult rises in the morning upon waking up, energizing the body and giving you a feeling of focus and clarity (once you’re up and out of bed!). In a randomized trial, 48 students followed their progress of adopting a new healthy habit in their lives (for example, light exercise) for the period of 90 days. Results shows that automaticity (meaning a successful creation of habit) was achieved first in the group that did this action in the morning, rather than the group who performed it in the evening. The average was 50 days earlier than the evening group.
Which means, if you want to speed up the habit-making process, go for it earlier on in the day if you can, while you have energy and motivation to get it done.
The following wildly successful folks are proof positive that these morning rituals are key. Here, the type of habits that have contributed to their success.7
Morning habit: Have breakfast. Serbian Tennis sensation Novak Djokovic swears by starting the day with a nutrient-rich breakfast. Usain Bolt agrees in giving the body adequate fuel. Not only do you have the energy to do all you need to, but making a habit of eating in the morning, rather than skipping, will ensure success for those looking to develop healthy eating patterns, to lose weight, and to curb overeating later on in the day.
Morning habit: Work your mind and body. Meditation and exercise are some of the best morning habits to cultivate. A daily meditation practice can be done by ANYONE. No matter your experience or how much time you have. To keep it consistent so that those neural pathways develop and you reap the rewards of regular practice, try to meditate within 30 minutes of awakening. Alternatives are going to a class, having guided sessions from online videos and audio tracks.
“Meditation, more than anything in my life, was the biggest ingredient of whatever success I’ve had,” says Ray Dalio, investor and hedge fund manager. Jack Dorsey, CEO and co-founder of Square, Inc., agrees that meditation and working out in the morning is best. Richard Branson, chair of the Virgin Group, also swears by morning exercise to get the cogs of his brain and body running smoothly.
Know your why. This is for anything you do — and when it’s a behavior you want to turn into a successful, automatic daily habit, then getting clear on your motivation will literally keep you motivated. When you do it enough, and remind yourself, on the hard days, why you’re doing it, you will rely less and less on energy and inspiration, and the momentum of habit will carry you along.
Understand that habits are necessary for success. If you’re using all your brain power to force yourself to go for that morning walk even though you are very accustomed to sleeping in, it may be a long and exhausting internal battle of excuses versus self talk. By the end of that whole process, you’ve spent so much energy on deciding to do the task that you’ve got less energy to give the task yourself. This is why developing healthy and productive actions as habit is much more efficient, less time consuming and more sustainable in the long run. You don’t have to battle against willpower and excuses; it becomes so automatic that you don’t waste all that extra energy.
The short of it all is that developing habits is essential for success in your personal life and professional work. You’ll spend less energy and time rallying yourself to do something, because you’ve put the effort in for that short amount of time so that in the long run, you sustain the actions and behavior.
Create for yourself an implementation intention — meaning get clear on when and how this habit will look in your day to day — to reduce your own excuses and to maximize your chance of remembering the task. If you can, choose morning time when your body and mind is more primed for patterning.
Stick with the habit for, at the very least, those 21 days. For many people, two months is a solid amount of time for the patterning to work. Remember that the longer you perform the task, the easier it’ll get, the more ingrained it will be, and, after a few months, it will feel odd on the times you forget or miss an opportunity to perform the task. (Also worth remembering: A few missed times won’t disrupt the habit formation.)
Congratulations, you’ve created a successful habit!
- Norcross, J. C., Mrykalo, M. S., & Blagys, M. D. (2002). Auld Lang Syne: Success predictors, change processes, and self-reported outcomes of New Year’s resolvers and nonresolvers. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58(4), 397–405. http://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.1151
- Duhigg, Charles. The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. Vol. 34. No. 10. Random House, 2012
- Clear, James. “How Long Does It Actually Take to Form a New Habit? (Backed by Science).”James Clear, Jamesclear.com, 2017, jamesclear.com/new-habit.
- Lally, Phillippa, et al. “How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world.” European journal of social psychology40.6 (2010): 998-1009.
- Verplanken, Bas, and Suzanne Faes. “Good intentions, bad habits, and effects of forming implementation intentions on healthy eating.” European Journal of Social Psychology29.56 (1999): 591-604.
- Fournier, Marion, et al. “Effects of circadian cortisol on the development of a health habit.” Health Psychology36.11 (2017): 1059.
- Wolfe, Abby, and Stacey Lastoe. “10 Olympic Athletes’ Daily Habits You Should Steal (That Don’t Involve the Gym).” The Muse, Daily Muse.inc, 10 Aug. 2016, www.themuse.com/advice/10-olympic-athletes-daily-habits-you-should-steal-that-dont-involve-the-gym.
- Brunson, Paul C. “20 Habits for Success I Learned Working for Two Billionaires.” The Huffington Post, Oath.inc, 6 Feb. 2014, www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-carrick-brunson/20-habits-for-success_b_4739731.html.
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