Updated: Jun 23, 2019
“ As it is not one swallow or a fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy..."
“ ...these virtues are formed in man by his doing the right actions.”
— Aristotle, (for real)
Bringing these two selections of quotes together, Will Durant elegantly combined their meaning, and stated what is regularly misattributed to Aristotle;
“ We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
- Will Durant 1926
It is true, a lot has been said (and misquoted) about habits and habit formation over the years. Definitions of habit include:
1. a general settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up, for example;
"he has an annoying habit of interrupting me" or ’‘good eating habits’, and
2. something that you do often and regularly, sometimes without knowing that you are doing it, for example;
"I always buy the same brand of toothpaste out of (= because of) habit"
When discussing habit, of course, there are many considerations; there are what we consider to be good habits and bad habits, habits we would like to stop/get rid of and habits we would like to develop or form. All facets of habits play an important role in behaviour change, but arguably the most important factor in driving successful behaviour change is the adherence to the process of removing destructive habits and replacing them with what we consider to be positive habits.
HABIT FORMATION TIMELINE - THE 21 DAY MYTH
Throughout the years of research on behaviour change and habit formation, a golden figure of 21 days has been repeatedly quoted in numerous self help books and theories on habit formation. Similarly an array of behaviour change programmes have been spurred, with time scales such as the infamous "30 day challenge". So how accurate and realistic are these claims?
The Case For....
Dr Maxwell Maltz (a plastic surgeon in the 1950's) famously wrote of his patients, in whom he noticed an interesting pattern forming. Of his patients on whom he performed a nose job, for example, he noticed it would take them 21 days to adjust to seeing their new face. Similarly, other patients who had limbs amputated, would experience phantom limb sensation for around 21 days post op. It encouraged him to think about his own adjustment period to changes and new behaviours, and he noticed that it also took himself about 21 days to form a new habit. Maltz wrote about these experiences and said, “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 gel.”
Well, with this followed a plethora of social philosophical commentators and behaviour analysts, writing "self-help" books and offering motivational TED Talks who quoted the 21 day habit formation mantra. However despite it turning out to being potentially inaccurate, all is not lost, as it has been found that the suggestion itself, acts as a positive reinforcement for beginning and engaging in many behaviour change programs.
The Science bit....
There has been a great deal of research in to this more recently, but one study (performed by Phillippa Lally; a health psychology researcher at University College London, and published in the European Journal of Social Psychology in 2009), examined the habits of 96 people over a 12-week period. Each person chose one new habit for the 12 weeks and reported each day on whether or not they did the behaviour and how automatic the behaviour felt.
Some people chose simple habits like “drinking a bottle of water with lunch.” Others chose more difficult tasks like “running for 15 minutes before dinner.” At the end of the 12 weeks, the researchers analysed the data to determine how long it took each person to go from starting a new behaviour to automatically doing it.
Lally found that on average, it actually takes more than 2 months before a new behaviour becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact. And how long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behaviour, the person, and the circumstances. In Lally's study, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit.
In other words, if you want to set your expectations appropriately, the truth is that it will probably take you anywhere from two months to eight months to build a new behaviour into your life — not 21 days. BUT... do not be disheartened.
Although it is unlikely that you will completely change your behaviour in 3 weeks, you will be en route, and small deviances along the way are completely normal and to be expected. It has been shown that the most successful people, are those who have failed in habit formation along their journey, but persevered and pushed themselves out of their comfort zone to achieve their goals.
Researchers in the Lally study found that “missing one opportunity to perform the behaviour did not materially affect the habit formation process.” In other words, it doesn’t matter if you mess up every now and then. Building better habits is not an all-or-nothing process.
It is important to be more focussed therefore on the PROCESS rather than the PROGRESS of behaviour change and habit formation.
So embracing longer timelines can help us realise that habits are a process and not an event. All of the “21 Days” hype can make it really easy to think, “Oh, I'll just do this and it'll be done.” But habits never work that way. You have to embrace the process. You have to commit to the system.
Understanding this from the beginning makes it easier to manage your expectations and commit to making small, incremental improvements — rather than pressuring yourself into thinking that you have to do it all at once, or by a certain time.
Healthy Habit Formation....
There are many researchers of habit formation, but perhaps 4 stand out for their theories;
Charles Duhigg, Gretchen Rubin, Nir Eyal and BJ Fogg,
Each have their own theory on mastering habit formation:
Charles Duhigg - Habit Loops Theory
Gretchen Rubin - The 4 Tendencies (& Author of "The Happiness Project")
Nir Eyal - The Hook Model
BJ- Fogg - The B-MAT Model
While they are all different, they all contain common themes involved in habit mastery, and each has its merits. I personally believe one may be suited more to one person than another, and so it is worth reviewing them and seeing which might work for you.
I will briefly elaborate here on the premise of "Tiny Habits" purported by BJ-Fogg. I chose this as it really breaks down changing behaviour into something that seems so manageable. Fogg was a behaviour scientist at Stanford who developed the Fogg Behaviour Model (FBM).
It states that for a trigger (same as a cue in Charles Duhigg’s Habit Loops model) to succeed, the right levels of motivation and ability must come together.
You might have a lot of motivation to do 100 press ups, but not the physical strength to do so. Eating a healthy meal of steamed broccoli is physically easier to do than the press ups. But you’re still likely to fail due to a lack of motivation (assuming you don’t love steamed broccoli).
So, to make sure that triggers for the right behaviours succeed and those for the wrong ones fail, Fogg created his approach called Tiny Habits, which are habits…
“you do at least once a day,”
“that take you less than 30 seconds,”
“that require little effort.”
To change behaviour using the Tiny Habits methodology, Fogg suggests using his simple but effective habit recipe template:
"After I [INSERT TRIGGER], I will [INSERT TINY HABIT]."
The trick here is to use a so-called anchor as your trigger. An anchor is a solidified, routine behaviour, like brushing your teeth, making coffee, or washing your hands. The anchor becomes the trigger for your new habit - KEEPING IT SIMPLE!
For example, flossing one tooth after you brush your teeth feels so dead simple that it’s hard not to follow through.
In practice Fogg argues, most people find the tiny habit leads to a larger behaviour change.
AND THIS IS WHAT I WOULD LIKE TO SHARE WITH YOU.....
TRIGGERS ARE KEY TO MAKING LIFE CHANGES THAT BECOME HABITUAL ROUTINE.
Imagine healthy nutrition choices and daily exercise being so routine and second nature that you do not even think about them.
MOTIVATION v's PROCRASTINATION
It is probably fair to say that most of us procrastinate over performing a task from time to time, though some more than others. So, what is it that differentiates those who have a greater propensity to procrastinate than those who are able to get the job done?
The answer is.....MOTIVATION!
For a fascinating listen on this topic click here where Claudia Hammond explores the psychology of motivation and procrastination.
So.....the length of time it takes to create new habits will be a unique journey for every individual.
The process of changing behaviour and forming new habits can be an enlightening and enjoyable one, and when applied correctly to nutrition and exercise, can be the single most powerful tool in you achieving your personal health goals.
So are you going to continue doing what you have always done, and go the Same Old Way or are you ready to begin the journey to Something New?
If you are committed to successful change and would like more information, please get in touch with Katie by following the link below and completing a short application form