When I attended a seminar on the One Thing by author Jay Papasan, he passed out a neat little cheat sheet. The topic? How to Form a new habit. They reported that someone did a study and found that that it takes much longer than most people think to form a habit. The popular misconception is that it takes as 30 days, and in some instances as little as 3 weeks to form a habit. For some people this is true. For most people however, this is far from true.
It turns out that someone did a study (I have no idea who – citation needed), and discovered that low and behold humans are all different! Well, different enough that one number does not describe our behavior. And if you think about it how could one number – one length of days – determine how everyone forms a new habit?
What the study revealed is that there is a range of days it takes people to form new habits. For a few it happened in as little as 17 days. For an equally small group it took 234 days! The average? 66
How to Form a New Habit: It Takes 66 days
For most of us, that is the sad truth. For most of us it takes 66 days to make a habit. So Mr. Papasan and his co-author Gary Keller kindly put a pdf file on their website called The one thing 66 Day Challenge. It combines the very famous Jerry Seinfeld “chain idea” with a set of 66 boxes.
If you want to form a new habit, then you need to do it for 66 days. Why the challenge? Because what they want you to do is to start checking off boxes. As you cross off each square, you start to form a chain. The trick is to start focusing on the chain. Encourage yourself not to break the chain.
The chain provides internal motivation, and it takes advantage of another principle. Kaizan, or the idea that small changes over time can lead to big results. As humans we are hard wired to love the home run, especially the grand slam. LOTS of wins in one big play. In real life however, (and I have seen this in baseball) you can often cause more damage by getting walks and singles. Small achievements consistently applied over time add up to big things.
This is the core idea behind the chain.
How to Form a New Habit: Our Brains Want Habits
It turns out, habit forming is natural. We mostly think of habits as unhealthy. But in the book “Smart Thinking” by Art Markman, Phd he shares that the human brain is built to save energy by forming habits. Thinking is hard work. Habits save time and energy. However, consciously building habits – that takes some effort.
How to Form a New Habit: My own Experience
My own experience with forming new habits is that I get about 16 to 18 days in then I run out of steam. I miss for a few days, then come back in a smaller burst, then miss a few more days, then a smaller burst, until finally there are a few scattered ‘X’ marks on my challenge sheet and 66 days have gone by.
A few habits have stuck with me – such as walking the dogs daily. I journal daily (with pen and paper). And my fitbit has been surprisingly effective in getting me to pack in 10,000 steps every day. When I did not have it, I cut corners. As soon as I got it back, the feedback motivated me to put in the time to hit my daily goal.
So in the grand scheme of things, and perhaps this is the true potential of the iWatch and other wearable tech – if we can get just the right kind of help to motivate us to create new habits that are healthy for us. My fitbit has motivated me to walk regularly and improve my health. But it can’t motivate me to put my keys and wallet in their home by the front entrance (Thank you Andrew Mellen). I am still barely 31 days into that new habit forming, and for the first – yep you guessed it – 17 or so days, I was diligent about putting my keys and wallet in their “home”. Now I find my keys and wallet in all sorts of places around the house and I dutifully walk them back to their home as soon as I catch them out of place, but I feel like I am losing focus on creating the new habit. I am not giving up, just working it.
How to Form a New Habit: Keep plugging
The real key here I believe is to keep after it. Despite the fact that our brains want to form new habits, they often have to reprogram old habits to vest the new behavior. And that will take some time and effort. Sustaining effort over long periods of time is easier if you have effective feedback systems. And as good as my fitbit is, the real motivator are my two dogs, Cookie and Addy. No electronimagical device can compare to the guilt they will lay on me if I don’t walk them in the morning. In fact, even as I write this they are coming up under my arm and flicking my hand with their nose to get me away from the computer.
I have been walking them every morning (at least 6 days a week) for nearly 3 years now.