You might have heard a few magic numbers when it comes to building habits. Some people say it takes 21 days, some say 30 and others 66. Let’s find out the truth and more importantly what you can do to supercharge your habit building powers.
Where did these numbers come from?
The 21 days came from work done in the 1950s and 60s by a plastic surgeon named Maxwell Maltz. He discovered that it took his patients around 21 days to get used to their new faces. In his work, Maltz is careful to point out that the 21 days are not a fact and that it’s a minimum rather than a fixed number. Still, the 21 days were easy to remember and became a popular belief. Even today the number is still being used by many habit creation apps and programmes.
More recently a study by Phillippa Lally found that it took people an average of 66 days to form a new habit. The important word here is average. There was a huge variety and it took people anything from 18 to 254 days!
So how long does it take?
The truth is there is no magic number. How long it takes you to form a habit is hugely dependent on
- How easy or difficult the new behaviour is
- Your personality
- Your environment
- Your motivations (Are you doing it for others and because you feel like you should? Or are you actually wanting to do the behaviour)
- How the behaviour makes you feel
So what do we do with this information? I for one don’t fancy working on a new habit for over 200 days! Plus, I can build habits really fast: Give me some chocolate every day and I swear I’ll make it a habit in no time.
Or think about giving a teenager a smartphone. How long does it take her to use it daily? Certainly less than 21days! It’s pretty much an instant habit. The reason for this are the positive emotions she feels when using the phone (which is of course carefully designed by some of the best psychologists around).
And that’s where most people go wrong when trying to build new healthy habits: We focus on what we should be doing. We force ourselves to do things our bodies and minds aren’t ready to do.
Think about it: If you are not enjoying a 5k run and it causes you pain, why on earth would your brain want to do it again?? Your brain wants to help you out and avoid negative emotions. As long as your activity causes you to feel bad you are always going to have to fight your own brain. And that my friend is an uphill battle.
The number one shortcut to building habits
So if you don’t want to waste the best part of your year on trying to put in place that running routine you don’t even enjoy you better come up with an alternative plan: You’ll need to trick your brain and create some positive emotions!
But HOW?? I hear you ask:
It’s a simple mind trick and it almost works like magic.
- Make your new behaviour small enough that you can enjoy it. You can grow it bigger later. So instead of a 5k run, go for a walk or jog around the blog.
- Create a little artificial celebration: Think how amazing you are that you remembered to go for that run. Think how good it makes you feel and how proud you are of yourself. You can even add a little fist pump or imaginary high fives. be creative, anything goes!
By focusing on the good feeling your brain will make a connection between cause and effect:
Cause = Running
Effect = I feel good!
And guess what, that small but mighty feel good emotion is the secret weapon to building habits real fast. If you feel successful and good about yourself your brain will want to do the behaviour again and again!
Main take away
Positive emotions create habits and not repetition.
Don’t worry if you miss the odd day. Just feel extra good the next time you do your behaviour.
You can relax and stop thinking of yourself as a failure. It doesn’t matter how long it takes to build a habit. What matters is that you get the set up right.
So next time you try to create a habit, think about how it makes you feel. To supercharge your habit building power you will need to feel good.
No matter how small your behaviour, no matter if you think it’s not important or big enough to be celebrated. Trust me, it is. And it’s soooo worth it.
And now it’s time to put words into action: Happy habit building!
As always, let me know how you get on and what happy feeling you come up with by leaving a comment below. (I like to raise my arms in victory)
f you want to find out more about how to create healthy habits that stick, why not sign up to fitandhappy HABITS. The only emails you’ll need to start changing your life forever.