Habits are interesting things and we really are defined and controlled by them. Every aspect of your life is based on habitual behaviour. We do own them. We created them to suit our circumstances. This is our bubble, or world, our routine. When I turned around to look at how habits shape my life, it made me think about how long does it take for a new habit to be created?
It turns out that many people who are much smarter than me and have more letters after their name have studied this and the results are both fascinating and daunting as someone who is trying to alter habits.
Phillipa Lally’s study of 2009 found that new habit take between 21 and 254 days to form. So either a month, or nearly a year. Great! Thanks Pip! There is a growing body of research which shows habit changes are key to achieve better health. I think I’d come to that conclusion too – but it turns out that doctors consider it hard too.
Based on studies, health professionals rarely prescribe a habitual change due to the time it takes to explain the processes and offer support to those who are trying to change behaviours – modifying habits which have been adhered to for a lifetime. Boiled down, though the advice for forming a new habit is: “repeat a chosen behaviour in the same context, until it becomes automatic and effortless.”
So far – this process for me has had it’s up’s and downs, the hardest being getting up at 5am. I know I keep banging on about this, but I’ve arrived at the same conclusions on my own. Context is important for repetition. My day’s first task going for a 2 mile walk. This is made more automatic and effortless by ensuring I prepare the night before. Clothes, shoes and hat are in a neat pile so I can just throw them on quickly and get out the door. I’ve been doing this for 3 consecutive mornings now, and this morning it occupied less of my conscious mind. It still hurt to physically wake up, but it happened. I look forward to not having to think about the process – I think then the time spent will be less about the event and focus on other things.
These feelings of wanting it to become easier quicker led me to look into how long habits take to form. Psychologically, these are classed as “system 2” processes, which are slow to modify.
Several studies refer to the time a habit takes to form is also directly related to the circumstances which have enabled the change. For some it’s a health scare, for me it’s years of beating myself up for not doing it sooner. A have an archive of well trodden excuses. When they pop into my mind now, like “I’ll skip it this morning, I had a busy day yesterday” or “I’ve worked hard so far – one day without it won’t hurt, it’s like hearing an annoying lyric from a song you hate. I know it’s intention. Delay, procrastinate and putting it off.
Diet and exercise habits have felt easier because I’ve superimposed them on to another habit. The apps which allow me to track my diet and exercise are on my smart phone which is a bit habit. Most people, on average check their phone nearly 75 times a day. At lease 30 of those checks, for me now is to see how many points I’ve got left or how many steps I’ve taken. Doing that feels comfortable due to it’s context.
I guess, when I stop having the inner monologue with myself about these new habits I’ll have achieved my magic number of days to re-wire my brain. I do sincerely hope it’s only slightly more than 21 and a lot less than 254. I also know that any break with the formation of these new habits will reset my day count to 0. I won’t let that happen again.