Aristotle is famously quoted as having said, “We are what we do repeatedly. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.” A statement as true today as it was 2400 years ago. Habit is indeed the key to excellence, so the question is how does one go about developing new habits? And equally important, how long does it take?
Conventional wisdom and pop-psychology would say 21 days. Unfortunately this number is a misquote of Dr. Maxwell Maltz’ observations. He noticed that his plastic surgery patients would take roughly 21 days to adjust to their new face, and that patients with amputated limbs would take a similar length of time to adjust to phantom limb sensations. What he actually wrote was “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.”
More current research has shown that new habits actually take an average of 66 days to form, though simpler behaviours can become habit much more quickly and more complex behaviours can take much longer. If you’re interested in this topic you can find an interesting summary of the research on the Brainpickings Blog. The take home message is that you should expect it to take at least a couple of months to establish a new habit or routine. One extra piece of good news that has come out of current research is that missing a day here or there has little negative effect on habit formation. So the next time you fall off the wagon, don’t get so discouraged.
If you’re looking to establish positive changes then you should definitely give this article from 99u a read. The article presents 5 scientific ways to make habits stick. I’ll outline the author’s key points here, but his explanations and supporting evidence are well worth the read.
5 ways to make habits stick
- Make “micro quotas” and “macro goals” -the goals are the big picture item and the quotas are the minimum amounts of work that you must get done every single day to make the bigger goal a reality
- Create behaviour chains – use your current routine to your advantage by picking a regular part of your schedule and then building another “link in the chain” by adding a new habit.
- Eliminate excessive options -making repeated choices depletes mental energy and therefore self-control. Maintaining long-term discipline is easier if you ‘routinize’ the mundane aspects of your life as much as possible.
- Process plan (but don’t fantasize) – visualizing the process of the individual steps needed to achieve a goal (e.g. visualizing practice) is far more effective in establishing a habit than visualizing the end result (e.g. standing on the podium)
- Eliminate “ah-screw-its” – identify the things that are most likely to cause you to abandon your habit and implement strategies in advance to deal with these obstacles.
I’ve found these strategies have been successful in helping me to stick to my plan to create positive changes in my life. I hope they can do the same for you.