"To change a habit, make a conscious decision, then act out the new behavior." --Maxwell Maltz
I Googled whether it really takes '21 Days To Form New Habits.' I wanted to know if the oft-repeated advice is true, so I went looking to see if someone, somewhere, had data to prove it.
Most sources simply state 'Research has shown--' and 'I've heard that--' and 'One study established--' and 'Experts concluded--' Nowhere did I find any quotes that actually referenced or credited this ubiquitous study. Well, what's a Sparker to do?
I could just take it on faith... Nah. You know I'm not like that. I'm a regular Doubting Kasey.
My digging turned up a few articles stating that the concept of the 21-day-habit-change was first used in a book printed in the 1970s, which ascribed the three-week timeline to a serious scientific report. Two other articles gave credit to a book published in 1960 by a medical doctor. I found several things that kind of debunked the myth altogether.
That was the bad news.
The good news? Several reputable institutes and universities have done in-depth studies about how the brain learns, develops patterns, and incorporates information to make - or break - habits.
Dr G. Alan Marlatt is director of the University of Washington's Addictive Behaviors Research Center. He said they found that while the first few weeks of trying to break a bad habit or start a new one are the hardest, once you're past those first three or four weeks, the pattern has been set, making the new 'mindset' easier to maintain. (Gee, sounds like SP's famous 'streak' to me!)
Phillippa Lally, a psychologist at the University College London, set up a study in which the subjects were to learn new habits (as opposed to dropping 'bad' ones). The subjects took an average of SIXTY-SIX days - 8 to 10 weeks! - before they reported the new behaviors had been ingrained and felt 'automatic.'
Ann Graybiel, Ph.D., a professor at MIT: after extensive studies on learning and behavior, she found that there are physical changes in the brain which can be charted as new habits form. However, these changes can be undone relatively quickly if the habits are 'broken,' with the new pattern no longer receiving input and reinforcement. But she and her team also found that the 're-establishment' of the new habit happens much more quickly than it did the first time. In other words, even though it has been abandoned, it can be recovered much faster than a totally new habit can be learned.
Consider some of the more positive facts that these various researchers also uncovered:
1) The length of time to establish a new habit often varied with the 'difficulty' of the habit. Subjects who were trying to start a new habit of drinking more water each day, or wanting to break a bad habit of hitting the 'snooze' on their alarms, had a much easier time than did subjects who were trying to learn more complex behaviors - such as staying within a narrow range of calories. And addictive behaviors, such as smoking, were (understandably) the most difficult of all to change.
2) People who were trying to change just one habit, in either direction, reported more success than people who were trying to change three or more habits. It appeared that 'undoing' a bad habit (late to work) while replacing it with the better habit (five minutes early) worked better than trying to change several unrelated habits (eat a piece of fruit with lunch, walk half-an-hour daily, eliminate caffeine from the diet) at the same time.
3) Missing one day did not cause a major setback, regardless of the behavior(s) being addressed. While all the studies confirmed that consistency and repetition returned the best results, especially in the early days, many subjects were still successful even when they reported missing one, and sometimes two, days while changing a habit.
4) Those who used techniques of organizing and planning the changes they needed to make to learn new habits were among the most successful in all the studies. Those subjects were the ones who sorted what was needed for the new habit (buying new running shoes, throwing out cigarettes, getting fruit at the grocery store), then drew up WRITTEN plans with specific steps to achieve the change.
So what's the bottom line? For me, it was reassuring to know that yes, science says behaviors can be changed, positive habits can replace unhealthy ones, and even addictions can be broken, with persistence.
Much of it comes down to common sense, I think. Just like with weightloss, there's no simple solution, no one-size-fits-all answer. Patience is important: you have to be patient with yourself as you work through learning (or unlearning) a habit. Consistency is a help, as it will boost the chances of developing the habit more quickly.
Our reminders about 'baby steps' and 'one day at a time' are useful applications. We tell ourselves to 'get back on track' as quickly as possible if we revert to old, unhealthy habits. Our advice to each other that 'Failing to plan is planning to fail' is as much true when it comes to habitual behaviors as it is in anything else.
Habits aren't automatic - they require care and feeding. (This, to me, explains the 'backsliding' phenomenon, which happens when we stop practicing a habit even after it's been 'learned.') Commitment, determination, persistence... all the elements we so frequently discuss here on Spark are the very ones that are most likely to help us achieve success with habits we want to change.
"Habit is a form of exercise." --Elbert Hubbard
I feel better for that. How about you?