How long does it take to change a habit? You’ve probably heard ranges anywhere from 2 weeks or 21 days, up to 30 days or more. In my experience, it depends.
In this post, I summarize the key thing that changing a habit depends on. Once you know the keys to changing a habit, you can more effectively analyze your own habit changing attempts. Here are 10 keys that influence your ability to change an old habit or form a new one:
- Thinking, feeling, and doing patterns. First get a handle on whether you’re trying to change how you think, feel or act, or all of the above. For example, if you’re trying to get out of bed earlier in the morning, don’t wait until you feel like it or try to think yourself into it. Just get out of bed. Eventually motivation will follow. Eventually you’ll have the habit of hopping out of bed. If you’re trying to change how you feel, you might start by changing how you think or what you do. In the process, you might find you have a recurring thought pattern that gets you stuck. Start with that. The key is to catch yourself, interrupt the pattern, and change it. See The Change Frame.
- Intellectual, emotional, and physical. When you learn a new habit, think in terms of a progression. First you learn it intellectually so you understand it. Next, you get first-hand experience, and have an emotional connection for or against it. Next, you burn it into your body (your basal ganglia and muscle memory) to the point where your body just knows what to do (e.g. when you smack the alarm clock with your eyes closed, or shift gears without thinking about it.) This progression can take time and repetition, especially burning it into your body. If you’ve ever practiced an instrument or taken a martial art, you can remember the awkward stage until your body knew what to do. This is where repetition, deliberate practice, and your technique really come into play. See Bloom’s Taxonomy for Learning.
- Time. Time is a wild card. If you’re bringing back an old habit, it can be fast. If you’re forming a new habit, you may have to go through the awkward stage or the growth spot. Here’s where it depends on whether you’re changing a thinking, feeling, or doing pattern, and whether you have to progress from intellectual to emotional to physical. In my experience, you can quickly change how something feels, by changing how you think about it. You can also quickly change how you think about something, when you learn new information. Either way, it seems like your emotional response is what reinforces you, one way or the other (towards pleasure or away from pain.) Burning something into a physical habit seems to take the longest, if you measure by how long do you have to do it, before you don’t have to think about it.
- Values. Ultimately, your values are the trump card. For example, I did a living foods experiment for a month and got great results. At the end of 30 days, I had amazing results, but I decided not to continue, based on my values (I enjoy eating out with friends).
- Pain and Pleasure. As logical as we like to think we are, we really are creatures of habit. Emotions drive us. Pain drives us one way, while pleasure drives us another. At the end of the day, you’ll do more to avoid pain, than to get pleasure (unless of course, pain is your pleasure.) When you change a habit, find a way to link it to good feelings. Link the old behavior to pain. It’s not enough to tell yourself this is good for you or that is bad, it’s about changing how you feel, when you perform it. For example, I told myself running was good for me, but I didn’t like how it feels. I play my favorite songs to add pleasure while I run. Eventually, my body linked running to pleasure.
- Motivation. This could very well be the most important factor. “Why” change? When it’s externally driven, such as for money or some other external reward, it can quickly fade. When it’s driven by internal values, it’s sustainable. There’s a lot to be said for the adage, “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” I also like to remember the joke, “how many psychiatrists does it take to change the light-bulb? … just one, but the light-bulb has to *want* to change.”
- By default or by design. Some habits can go against your grain. Either they rub your values the wrong way, or they fight your natural thinking, feeling or doing patterns. In this case, I don’t mean your learned behaviors, but what you’re wired for. For example, although you can swap out some introverted behaviors for some extroverted ones, or vice-versa, you might be fighting your personality basics. It’s just another reason why some habits may be faster to adopt, while others may seem like a perpetual fight.
- Your Social support. Your peers or social-pressure can support you or work against you. If you’re aware of the impact, you can prepare yourself for it, or limit as needed, or make it work for you.
- Your environment. Your structure and environment play a key role in your day to day. Consider your workspace. Consider the visual cues you have around you. Which way do they push or pull you?
- Stress. We all know stress can knock us back to our old patterns. There are a couple of things you can do here. First, ask yourself whether now is the right time for change, or if you should catch the next train, when there will be less stress. Second, plan your responses for your stress up front. Don’t try to make up a great response on the fly. Instead, have a simple plan for when you’re stressed. Identify your triggers. For example, if you lick your wounds by reaching for cake, maybe there’s something else you also enjoy you could do instead? If you plan this up front, it’s easier to test a new behavior.
Daily repetition seems to play a key role, especially when it comes to changing physical habits. In a presentation by Jack Canfield, he told us how uninterrupted daily routine in an experiment with astronauts that showed how. They gave them concave lenses, which made them see upside down. After 30 days of continuous wear, they could see right-side up. If they interrupted the experiment along the way, the results reverted back. I think what’s important about this experiment was that it was about changing the physical function.
If you need to change a habit, I recommend making it a 30 Day Improvement Sprint, and make it your theme for the month. This helps give you enough time to get over the initial awkward stage (that’s what growth feels like) and enough time to experiment or play at your results. It also helps you focus on a simple goal for the month.
Photo by clownfish.