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10 Keys to Changing a Habit

10KeysToChangeAHabit

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.
  6. 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.”
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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?
  10. 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.

16 Comments on "10 Keys to Changing a Habit"

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  1. Valerie M says:

    Hi there, JD.
    Great post. I’ve tried and failed a few 30 day trials. I can come up with every excuse under the sun why, but maybe that’s why I failed. It’s true about the growth spot, the first few days/weeks are the hardest.
    I really liked #5: trying positive reinforcement to establish a habit. I am wondering how to apply that to waking up early, however…

  2. I’ve always heard that new habits take about three months to fully acquire. I’d say that for me, that has been accurate. What I like about this post is that it covers the surrounding issues and difficulties with building or breaking down habits. I think stress is the biggest challenge and therefore the one you have to be most prepared to face.

  3. Patricia says:

    Excellent post for me to read today. I am starting the Dr. Fuhrman regime on the 24th of August, but am preparing myself this week. Thanks to you and Julie for the referral…I am allowing myself to really celebrate my actual birthday this coming weekend.

    I am working on attitude and timing this week – making a plan to ease on into the new pattern. I also thought the timing would be good as my partner will be gone for 15 days on a bike tour and not need all my cooking skills focused on his needs.

    Having been gone for 20 days on an adventure and then having my computer down for a week longer, has allowed for openings for new patterns to be developed.

    Thank you for this good post and your great timing.

  4. JD,

    I like the 10 specific factors you highlight. It’s true that changing a habit in 21 or 30 days depends on specific assumptions eg you’ll do the new thing everyday etc.

    Your point on values is more important that many people realise, I suspect. Sometimes our underlying values make us uncomfortable with the new habit and we may not even know why.

    Great post as usual.

  5. Lance says:

    I have to agree that motivation is a big one here – what we’re motivated to do, that’s what will “stick”. I know that’s been the case for me – when I’m really into something, it’s so much easier to make it happen.

  6. J.D. Meier says:

    @ Valerie

    If this helps, when I start a change at the beginning of a month it sticks. It’s like a fresh start. When I’ve tried making changes in the middle of a month, I always lose track. I actually should have called my 30 day improvement sprints, monthly improvement sprints.

    To apply pain and pleasure to waking up early, I would do 3 things:
    1. Make going to bed at night a pleasure (have a shutdown routine, such as reading your favorite book)
    2. Make waking up early feel good (have a nice startup routine you enjoy, such your favorite breakfast)
    3. Get a good vision in your mind of your perfect start to the day

    I know it sounds simple, but the real secret is going to bed earlier. If you go to bed earlier, you’ll wake up earlier. It sounds so obvious, but it took me a long time to figure that out. It turned out, I hated going to bed earlier. I had to make that a pleasure.

    @ Melissa

    Stress definitely tests us. I think having a more complete view of habits, turns it from trial-and-error to a chess game.

    @ Patricia

    Good luck with your new routine and happy upcoming birthday!

    I like your point that your downtime created openings for new patterns.

    @ Daphne

    Thank you. I think you’re right. Values is extremely important, and not always obvious. A lot of times I tried to make a change, I later realized, I didn’t really want to. Other changes, even painful ones, I made because I decided I would make them happen. I had a compelling “why.” Values are always at the core.

    I think in general, we’re guided by our values, but a life changing event can reshift our priorities.

    @ Lance

    Too true. All the best techniques in the world, won’t work, if there’s no motivation. In fact, it reminds me that a nice frame for change is motivation, skill and feedback. The right kind of feedback is crucial to staying on track, even if it’s just your own inner-coach prodding you on.

  7. I’ve been surprised at how important environment can be at changing patterns. Whether it’s reorganizing the desk so that first work seen is first work done or the fridge so that treats are behind the veggies every nudge seems to help.

  8. Jack says:

    I hope it works. After we grown up, we develop lots of bad habits. we need to improve our habit

  9. Valerie M says:

    Hi JD,
    Thanks for taking the time to write this advice. I’m going to give it a shot… especially going to bed earlier. It’s so hard for me because there’s not enough time in the day. :)

  10. JD says:

    @ Fred

    I know what you mean. Environment is a powerful influence. I’ve been surprised by how much even something as simple as keeping an empty email inbox influences how I feel. A full inbox is burden, and empy inbox is opportunity.

    @ Jack

    Some problems are like chipping away at the stone. Others are more like blasting dynamite. I think having a metaphor for the change is important. I should have included this point in the post.

    @ Valerie

    Good luck with your new habit. Actually, skill is now on your side. If it helps, adopt a “Rule of 3″ for each day and decide your 3 most important things to accomplish. This way, you feel good about your results, and you can bite off just enough for the day, but not overwhelm yourself.

    Another mindset that helps. Don’t worry about the trains you miss, just catch the next train (each new day.)

  11. Fariborz says:

    Hi, JD
    Excellent post, I benefit from it.
    I think motivation is a key to change. I believe the most important factor for changing each habit and addict is motivation, so if you have all factors for change, but you don’t have motivation, you wouldn’t change, but if you only have high motivation, certainly that your bad habit will change.

    Fariborz Arbasi, M.D

  12. parman zt says:

    its very good

  13. Omwenga says:

    hi there,
    your point on time is important to me.I receive my salary after three months and spend everything on the first week after payment. how can I change this habit

  14. JD says:

    @ Omwenga — One of the most effective ways to handle money is to set limits.

    For example, decide up front how much you want to save each pay period, and then “pay yourself first”, just like a bill. Be sure to put this in a separate account, such as a savings account.

    Link it to good feelings when you actually stick to your habit, such as acknowledging that you’re investing in your future.

  15. Carolyn says:

    For me, my success lies in making the changes small ones, linking them to another habit, and being convinced that I want to at least try it. It has to be important to me to make the change. One thing at a time. I used to work out at least 2 hours a day, and I had a job that kept me on my feet most of the time. Now I have a sedentary job, am older, and I am tired when I get home. So, I’ve gained weight. I’m changing my eating habits by switching just one type of food a day, and adding more as the first one feels like “normal’. Exercise? Yoga is fitting in. Don’t need a lot of space, time or energy. I want to see results fast, but I know I won’t stay with anything that is too drastic. And my health is very important to me and having the energy to spend on my hobbies.

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