Rethinking what it takes to break (or form) a new habit

One year in California…

Wow has it already been a year? In late October of 2015 I made a pretty big move out to California. Although I had a job in place, I didn’t know anyone in the area, or really California for that matter. So much has changed over the past 12 plus months. I’ve been lucky to have found a group of great friends and my place in the community. I can’t wait to see what this next year has in store!

Being home for the holidays is always a good time. This year’s festivities included an afternoon stroll down West Point’s Flirtation Walk, being cozy in matching onesies with my sister, and indulging in holiday cookies.

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Rethinking the 21 Day Rule

I’m sure you’ve heard the long excepted saying that it takes 21 days to form a new habit, or break an old one. Until I started doing research for this blog post, I also thought this was true. This adage apparently stems from Dr. Maxwell Maltz who was a plastic surgeon, and later psychologist, in the 1960’s. According to it article by Ben Gardner called Busting the 21 days Habit Formation Myth, Maltz observed his patients post surgery finding the following,

Following plastic surgery it takes about 21 days for the average patient to get used to his new face. When an arm or leg is amputated the “phantom limb” persists for about 21 days. People must live in a new house for about three weeks before it begins to “seem like home”. These, and many other commonly observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.’

Psychologists at The Health Behavior Research Center have found that it takes about 66 days to form a habit or until March 6th for new year’s resolutions. Some participants they studied were able to form new habits in only 18 days, however others were predicted to take up to 254 days.

Gardner goes on to conclude that, “The bottom line is: stay strong. 21 days is a myth; habit formation typically takes longer than that. The best estimate is 66 days, but it’s unwise to attempt to assign a number to this process. The duration of habit formation is likely to differ depending on who you are and what you are trying to do. As long as you continue doing your new healthy behaviour consistently in a given situation, a habit will form. But you will probably have to persevere beyond January 21st.”

Another article from the Huffington Post called How Long Does it Actually Take to Form a New Habit (Backed by Science) written by James Clear, goes into detail about the same 21 day myth. Clear points out that “habits are a process, not an event”.

I think we should all embrace the process by managing our expectations, prepare for slip ups, and making incremental changes. By reassessing your goal every few months, you can see if your timeframe is still realistic, and adjust as needed.

Key Points:

  • Habits aren’t formed overnight, they take months
  • Don’t be hard on yourself when things don’t change right away
  • Adjust your goals as needed
  • BUT hold yourself accountable

Now that you’re prepared to start the process of changing old or forming new habits, let’s talk about how to create your goals.

Smart Goals

“SMART” goals are simply a way of creating goals that are easier to track and stick to. By thinking through your end goals, you’re able to form a goal that will work for you, instead of one that’s completely unrealistic which ultimately won’t work. More on SMART goals can be found here.

S – specific, significant, stretching

M – measurable, meaningful, motivational

A – agreed upon, attainable, achievable, acceptable, action-oriented

R – realistic, relevant, reasonable, rewarding, results-oriented

T – time-based, time-bound, timely, tangible, trackable

Happy new year everyone!


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