We live our lives by patterns, whether we realise it or not.
Oftentimes these patterns are behavioural habits which form over time, but how long does it take to form a habit really? 30 days as the wives tales tell us?
Well actually, yes…. but with a few catches!
If you want to make a lasting change in any area of your life you need to form a habit. Whether it be losing weight, getting up earlier, studying to a schedule or simply being mindful we constantly rely on habits.
We usually let habits form without any conscious intervention, leading more often than not to bad habits – the easy path.
Our American mate Brett McKay over at the Art of Manliness posted a great video primer on breaking the bad habit cycle a few weeks ago which I recommend you all watch:
So that’s great if we are trying to lose the bad habits, but what do we do if we want to form brand new, and most importantly retain good habits?
There are a few schools of thought with varying degrees of success, but from our research we’ve been able to cut out the nonsense and can now present some simple steps that you can apply to any habit you may wish to form:
1. Write it down
As with achieving any goal, the first step is to write it down. When you write it down it’s no longer in your head – it’s in the wide world and it’s real.
2. Commit to a month
It takes about a month to create a habit. If you dedicate the willpower to engraining the action or behaviour into your lifestyle for 30 days it will be far easier to sustain. As an added bonus, it’s easy to block off a month in your Google Calendar as habit forming month. If you add a daily alert (or if you’re like me, three alerts a day) it will be difficult to forget your commitment.
3. Maintain the momentum
If you want to keep the habit up you need to create a steady pattern. The easiest and most solidifying way to do this is to practice the new habit every day. For example, if you want to start exercising, try exercising every day for the full month. Going every second or third day may be your goal and more realistic in the long term, but doing this in the habit forming phase will make it harder in the long run and you risk forgetting to practice the habit if it isn’t a part of the daily routine. Of course after going to the gym every day for a month dropping back to two or three days a week will be a cinch.
4. Keep it simple
When you decide to create or change a habit you are likely full of enthusiasm and eager to engrain it into your lifestyle. While this attitude is essential, it’s easy to get over-motivated and try to take on too much (think, trying to bench your bodyweight on your third day at the gym). Start slow and build up over time; that way you don’t shock your system and risk wimping out later.
5. Keep set variables
The more consistent you are in your first month, the better it will stick. Staying with the gym theme: go at the same time, to the same gym (why are you paying for two gym memberships doofus?) and in a simialr frame of mind. Even listening to similar music could be helpful if you want to manipulate a song as your habit cue (Brett spoke about this earlier, and we will talk more on this in step 7).
6. Find a habit buddy
Seek out someone to keep you motivated after the enthusiasm begins to wear off and will keep you accountable for the commitment you made when you were full of passion at the start of the month! This can be your partner, mother, kid, friend – anyone you see regularly and cares about your new good habit. Bonus points if your habit buddy takes on the same habit, and double points if they already have the habit.
7. Use a habit trigger
This is a depthy area that Brett already touched on in his video, so I’ll simply refer you to Tynan who will explain further. The digest version is that you need to find a sensory or behaviour cue to trigger the habit (sound, smell, touch, or arriving home from work, waking up etc.). Having a trigger will help remind you to practice the habit, and in the long term ‘trigger’ your habit response without any though from you at all.
8. Eliminate temptation
If you’re moving away from an old bad (read: easier) habit it will be easier if you remove easy access to that habit. Throw out the doritos, the ice cream and the soft drink. If you’re (too) techy and you want to cut down on screen time, put a dynamic password on your computer so it takes effort to log in. This taps into your subconscious effort/reward evaluations, hopefully tipping the scales into the ‘not worth it’ category.
9. Focus on the carrot, not the stick
Contrary to the long held beliefs of the Catholic Church, punishment isn’t a very good way to create or reinforce good behaviours. Many people don’t give themselves enough credit for the positive changes they’ve made to their lifestyles. Small rewards and positive reinforcement is critical for the maintenance of long term habit change. The last thing you want is for your brain to shut down on a habit because you buggered up once. Remember to reward yourself every once in a while.
10. Don’t expect the habit to continue with no effort
Yes, I know the definition of a habit contradicts me here, but hear me out – there are always up days and down days. Even after months of habit forming you may have a downer day and not feel like going to the gym. That day turns into a week, and without intervention you might only go to the gym once a week. After a month, your gym habit is gone and you’re back to channel surfing.
If you follow these universally applicable steps and do your own research you’ll have no trouble forming your new good habit, whatever it is.
Have you got any tips on forming lasting habits? Let us know in the comments below!