In our last post we talked about the importance of having a powerful enough motive or ‘WHY’ to keep you going. If your WHY isn’t big enough, you’re more likely struggle down the road and drop out sooner rather than later.
Today we’ll address a popular question a lot of you ask: how long does it take to build a habit?
What most people tend to believe
Most people tend to believe it takes 21 days to build a habit.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. You might have heard about this as well. A mate might have mentioned it to you and you might even have to admit you’ve gone along with it as well. I don’t blame you. It’s a popular belief because it’s sounds doable and we all like to accept and hold on to ideas that seem doable to us. It gives us hope. Unfortunately, it isn’t as simple or straightforward as that.
What’s the real answer?
The honest (and probably highly annoying) answer is this: it all depends. Only a few researchers have actually looked about habit formation question in real-world settings. Most experts who tend to write about habit formation like to refer to this study done by University College London. Its main conclusion is that people took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days to form a new action automatically, or on average about 2 months. How long it took for an action to become automatic however varied from person to person and was dependent on the complexity of the action.
It all depends, on what?
It makes sense if you think about it. It’s easier to drink a glass of water every day then to run 3 miles. It’s less of a challenge to complete 5 push-ups every time after you went to the loo then to visit the gym every day. Some habits simply require more effort to maintain then others.
Likewise, some of us have an accountability buddy, a friend, or a partner in place who pick us up when it’s starts to go horribly wrong. Others do not have a safety net which overall makes it a bit more difficult.
Or how about this one, some people perform their habit always in the same environment, after the same trigger. For example, the push-up example after having been to the loo. The environment is pretty much the same (maybe different bathrooms), so is the trigger (flush the toilets or after washing your hands). If your trigger and environment are the same your behaviour becomes automatic sooner because of the consistency if that makes sense. Other people don’t have that structure in place so it might take them longer to build consistency over time.
There are many more little tricks and nifty elements you can put in place that will make it more likely that you stick to a new habit. Whether you build in these support mechanisms are not determine to a large extent how quickly your behaviour becomes automatic.
It’s the wrong question to begin with
However, the overall point I’m trying to make here is that you need to stop asking yourself how long it takes to build a habit as it’s totally the wrong question to start off with. Why? If you look at that question very carefully you can understand that it will put you in a very limited frame of mind.
How long will it take me?
What does that sound like?
How much do I need to do? How much is enough?
You see? It almost sounds as if you’re about to start some kind of boring chore. Something that’s being forced upon you. That’s not a very empowering approach, is it?
Need to do vs. willing to do
Rather than asking yourself how much you need to do, ask yourself how much you’re willing to do to make it a success. Realise that in this mindset there is no finish line because this is supposedly something you embrace and are eager want to pick up for the rest of your life. A chore then suddenly becomes a lifestyle, which also shifts the responsibility.
If you ask yourself how much I am willing to do to keep healthy/organised/close to those you love/etc. the next thing is you have to find a way that keeps it enjoyable for you. That can be anything. You can vary your approach by changing your actions. That’s absolutely fine. You don’t have to do 5 push-ups every day to keep fit if it isn’t fun anymore. Simply find a different means to reach that same end.
Build a habit: Let’s recap
Asking yourself how long it takes to build a habit is the wrong question to start off with. It puts you in a limited mindset as you start to perceive your habit as a chore, just another thing you need to do. Rather than asking yourself how much you need to do, ask yourself how much you’re willing to do to make your overall objective (having a loving relationship, feeling energetic, etc.) a success. Success has no finish line, success is a continuous process. So keep on finding an empowering habit that continues to serve your overall objective and switch to another habit if you have to. It’s not the habit you want to be automatic, it’s the lifestyle you’re after.