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There are a lot of scary things about life right now. I know you didn’t need me to tell you that.
But while we stay “safe at home” to help prevent the spread of a deadly disease, some of my clients and colleagues and I have been having some serious talks about habits.
Maybe the scariest thing about being “safe at home” has to do with the habits that we are (or aren’t) developing right now.
After life opens back up, what kinds of bad habits will we have picked up while we were stuck at home? And how difficult will it be for us to kick those habits? Could we be setting ourselves up for a really difficult transition back to our regular routines?
Maybe now that we have a little extra time (just maybe) and definitely extra control over our environment, since we are stuck in our very own self-designed environments (a.k.a homes), could right now be the best possible time ever to develop some really intentional healthy habits?
I know you are all about becoming better, so, I wanted to share three things you should absolutely keep in mind when it comes to looking at changing your habits.
These are all lessons from a really interesting and often referenced study on habits that was performed by researchers at University College London and published in 2009. They sought to find the answer to this question: How long does it take to form a new habit? That is, how long does it take for a new action to become automatic?
Here’s how they approached it.
Study participants were asked to choose a healthy behavior that they desired to turn into a habit. The new behavior had to be new to their life, one that they could perform everyday before or after an already established action that occurred only once per day, every single day.
The healthy habits that were selected were things like eating a piece of fruit with lunch, drinking a glass of water after breakfast, or doing 50 sit-ups after my morning coffee.
Each day the participants logged whether or not they performed the new “habit” and answered a series of questions designed to reveal how automatic the new action was becoming for them.
It’s OK with you, I’ll highlight some valuable gems that the study unearthed which I know will support you right now in creating some healthy habits.
How long does it take?
That was the big question. And the big answer is… it’s hard to say… 😂
Here’s the data, though there is quite a range. Based on what happened during the study and the trends that were observed, the researchers found that it took between 18 and 254 days for the new action to become automatic, and an average of 66 days.
Now, for starters, that throws the old cliché ‘it takes 21 days to create a habit’ out the window. It actually takes 3 times that long on average and, in some cases, might take most of a year.
How does that help? Well, I think it’s super important to have a realistic timeframe on how long you might have to put forth effort to get a new healthy habit to actually become automatic. And if your brain is slow sometimes (like mine), or the new habit is more complex than drinking a glass of water, plan for the long haul. You may be at it for over 250 days. But that’s life, right? What’s the alternative?
Improvement takes work. And if you are working at a new habit, you’ve already determined that it’s something you should be doing for the rest of your life. So, right out of the gate, plan on doing it for the rest of your life.
What if I miss a day? Does that mean I have to start over?
If you’re feeling a little deflated about the potential for a 254 day battle to create your new healthy habit, here’s some better news from the study results.
The researchers analyzed data around what they called missed opportunities. These were the times in the habit tracking process where the participants were doing well, had performed the action for at least 3 days in a row and then missed a day.
Based on the data from the participants’ surveys around that missed day, the study states: “A missed opportunity did not materially affect the habit formation process.”
And this is really cool: it didn’t really matter when in the habit formation process the day was missed! In other words, if you’re just getting started and you miss a day, or if you’ve been rocking along perfectly and then miss a day, it’s OK. It won’t affect the long-term success of the process for you.
So, give yourself a break if you miss a day of drinking your water, eating your veggies, or doing your self-coaching journal. The important thing is not giving up!
What’s the secret?
If you’re thinking that signing up for a new habit formation study would really benefit you, here’s a final sobering point from the study:
“It is interesting to note that even in this study where the participants were motivated to create habits, approximately half did not perform the behaviour consistently enough to achieve habit status.”
“Interesting to note?” What??? Only half of the study participants were successful!?!?! If you’re thinking what I’m thinking, you’re thinking that this data makes creating a new habit sound really, really hard.
The conclusion that the study authors came to in the face of these dismal results were that “interventions aiming to create habits may need to provide continued support to help individuals.” ABSOLUTELY!
Even in this controlled study, creating a new habit was a challenge for participants. The “secret” (if there is one) is: set yourself up for success by getting someone to support you.
In summary, the main points I want you to remember the next time you approach a new habit are:
Be realistic about how long it will take. It’s going to take a looooong time. Maybe you’ll be surprised that you’ve got it down sooner than that.
Don’t beat yourself up at all if you miss a day. Forgive yourself. Get going again the next day.
And finally, get support. Get all the support you can.
You know my style. I love some good self-coaching questions! So, in light of our discussion here today and the lessons we’ve learned from the study that I cited, why not take a look at what might be a habit you can focus on?
First, take a moment to recall your Post-Pandemic Visualization from last week, then ask yourself the following questions.
What’s one thing about your life then, being the person that you want to be (Hero You), that’s different in comparison to what you’re experiencing now?
Why is experiencing that change so important to you?
What might be some of the infinite possible actions that Hero You took in order to create that change? (List as many as you can think of.)
Of all the actions that you just listed, which one might be the best one to focus on first?
What might be the smallest daily action that you can take to move you forward from here?
What’s a daily action that is already part of your daily habitual routine that you can use as a cue to perform your new habit? (Just like the study participants did.)
How might you track your daily progress?
What might be one of the best ways for you to recruit some support from someone else in following through on this habit?
Hey, while I still have you, I’d love to know what habit you’re working on right now OR what habits you’ve successfully edited in your life already. Please send me a message or post in the comments.
You got this. 👊