How Long Do We Practice Before It Becomes a New Habit?


photo by Estée Janssens Unsplash New HabitOur class recently undertook a standing meditation challenge.  Sometimes when we introduce new topics or are working to get a group over a hump towards completion of a form or practice, we will undertake a challenge and report our progress through social media or back in class.  This is especially successful when a new practice falls into the “weird” category for some, or is outside of their comfort zone.  For the skeptical, it also creates a buy-in period which they are willing to accept.  They then can make their own judgments about whether it was beneficial or not.

If you are a teacher, I really suggest trying it with something short, simple, and daily.  Provide accountability logs for individuals to track their own progress and create a way in which people can share their experiences.  Facebook, email, or 5 minutes during class work well.  For us, we typically undertake 3 minutes of standing meditation for 21 days in the month of January.  We then pepper challenges throughout the year depending on what we are working on.

New HabitThis past year it was CLEAR that some people made bigger gains than others.  Some students were still standing, almost daily since January of LAST YEAR!  What made the difference?   When I asked them, they “just sort-a kept doing it.”  They experienced some benefits, but then later felt weird if they WEREN’T standing.  “I may skip a few days,” one shared, “but I begin to miss it.”

In Researching Habit Formation, the Difference Became Evident

The 7-day cleanse. 21 days to perfect abs. The 30-day new habit challenge.  The quarterly journal.  Do you know how experts go about choosing the time frame they use to achieve their results?  No?  I don’t know either.  Three things seem to influence their decisions:

  1. Overwhelmingly, most plans are in calendar-related increments

This makes planning easier but unfortunately true results do not know about calendars.  Not getting “perfect abs” in 21 days may have happened for a variety of reasons.  Hyper-calendaring can have the reverse effect of making us feel like failures rather than acknowledging the progress we made.

  1. These time frames “seem” doable

In their defense, there is some truth to the fact that if something (albeit beneficial) seems overwhelming, no one will begin.  However, you can’t choose a random set of days unless you can show results.

  1. Many extremely successful thought-leaders say it takes 21 days to form a new habit

One of the most pervasive myths around habit building, especially in the personal growth space, is the idea that it only takes 21 days to form a new habit. Why is this?  Digging back into their work they all credit much of their success to Maxwell Maltz and his personal growth classic Pscho-Cybernetics which was published in 1960.

Maxwell Maltz was a plastic surgeon in the 1950s.  When he would perform an operation, it would take the patient about 21 days to get used to the new changes.  Nose surgeries required 21 days for the person to get used to seeing their new faces.  Arm or a leg amputates reported sensing phantom limbs for about 21 days before adjusting to the new situation.

Maltz wrote: “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.”

Maltz’s work was picked up by a burgeoning self-improvement industry and many dropped the “a minimum of about” portion.  Maltz’s work in not wrong.  Certainly tens-of-thousands of us have benefited from him pioneering new thinking in personal development.  But research has come about to answer the question more definitively.

How Long Does it Really Takes to Build a New Habit?

In a 2010 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Health psychologist Phillippa Lally and her team at University College London set out to document just how long it actually takes to form a habit.

The study examined the habits of 96 people over a 12-week period. Each person chose one new habit such as drinking a bottle of water or running for 15 minutes daily and reported how easy it felt.

 “On average, it takes more than two months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact.”

Lally found that behavior, the person, and the circumstances dramatically affected the range of results (from 18 days to 254 days) with the average person taking 66 days.  So, with the right structure, attention, and focus, we are looking at about 2 months per goal, not 21 days.

66 Days – Making Form a New Habit in an Achievable Way

Knowing this makes a lot of sense.  Armed with this new information I am seeing why successful    Here are a few pointers to make sure that the habit is achievable:

  1. Make it small.  Our goal is to improve our consistency muscle, not add something new to our life.
  2. Make it daily.  By practicing or doing your new habit daily, you are embody the activity and it becomes part of you.  What does a writ-er do? She writes. What does a paint-er do, she paints.  What does a tai chi practition-er do?   He practices.
  3. Shoot for perfection, but don’t beat yourself up.  Lally’s work showed that change was possible by being consistent MOST days.  Aren’t you tired of trying to improve yourself and feeling bad because it wasn’t perfect?  Plan to stick with it but if you slip, just get back up and continue.

Get Ahead – Make Daily, Incremental Changes and Your New Practice will become a New Habit.

 

Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., Potts, H. W. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology. October 2010. 40(6), 998–1009.
How Long Does It Take to Form a New Habit? Backed by Science. James Clear – https://jamesclear.com/new-habit

Scott Prath

Scott has been practicing and teaching tai chi and qigong since 2000. He is a lead instructor for the Austin Chen Tai Chi Association. His interest in the internal martial arts began after traveling in India and Nepal, and he has since traveled to China to train. Scott has published over 100 articles on tai chi with a focus on research showing the benefits of practicing.

2 thoughts on “How Long Do We Practice Before It Becomes a New Habit?

  1. I worked as an exercise instructor in cardiac rehab for many years. MediCare used a 90 day program those clients that left rehab after 90 days a great percent stop exercising.
    Those that continued into the maintence program for another 90 days continue exercise.
    I now tell my Tai Chi Class six months to make Tai Chi like brushing teeth; where do not skip a day
    Respectfully
    Ed Hayes ACSMt

    1. That’s great. What size commitment were you asking them to do each day? Was it a certain number of reps or a specific time? Maybe the same amount of time needed to brush your teeth? Thanks for sharing.

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