When it comes to habits – creating good habits, or eliminating bad habits – it often feels like you are going in circles, never get anywhere. It’s frustrating. It often leaves you feel like you are a failure. There is an underlying belief that we should be able to do it easily and quickly, when we have set our minds to do it. But is this the truth? I recently read an interesting article by James Clear about habits and I thought I share his thoughts and findings with you and add my own.
Here are some interesting facts on habit formation that will hopefully help you to see your efforts in a different light. In a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Philippa Lally (a health psychology researcher at University College London) and her research team decided to figure out how long it actually takes to form a habit. The study examined the habits of 96 people over a 12-week period. 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.
It takes more than 2 months before a new behaviour becomes automatic — 66 days (on average) to be exact. How long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on what you are trying to change, the person, and the circumstances. 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 form a new habit.
Before you let this dishearten you, let’s talk about some reasons why this research is actually inspiring. The researchers 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 affair, but one of process. So, you can relax a bit and don’t feel like all is lost just because “it did not happen” today. You don’t have to be perfect! Give yourself permission to make mistakes, learn from them and develop strategies for getting back on track quickly. And here is where your mindfulness practice can be very valuable. With mindfulness you have potentially much more awareness around your habitual behaviours, thought processes and emotional responses, which will put you in an excellent position to see just what strategies you need to stay on track.
The research makes it very clear that there is no reason to get down on yourself if you try something for a few weeks and it doesn’t become a habit. It’s supposed to take longer than that! There is no need to judge yourself if you can’t master a behaviour in a few weeks or even a month. Embrace the long, slow walk to the change you want and focus on keeping it up as best you can. Of course, the more consistently you keep at it, the more likely it is that your efforts bear fruit earlier rather than later. Remember, every time you do something your synapses fire up and wire up thus creating, enhancing and maintaining pathways. And if you don’t do something these pathways can fall quickly apart… If you don’t use it, you lose it!
At the end of the day, how long it takes to form a particular habit doesn’t really matter that much. Whether it takes 50 days or 500 days, you have to put in the work either way.
The only way to get to day 500 is to start with day 1. Focus on doing the work. Habits are a process and not an event. Understanding this from the beginning makes it easier to manage your expectations. Dealing with habits, whether we want to demolish a bad habit, or create good ones, tends to be complex. Creating a habit will impact in practical ways on aspects of your daily life like your time, your money, or your energy. Psychologically the environment in which you want to create a new habit will either make it easier or next to impossible. For example whether you have a lot of moral support or not. Your inner environment, your frame of mind also plays a big part in this. For example if the habit you are trying to create is undermining some of your coping strategies (like comfort eating) or you have a fear of ridicule (I look silly in this running trousers), then you need to find ways of addressing these, or you don’t get very far. These are crucial aspects to understand and appreciate in your unique situation, if you want to be successful. Understanding these and committing to make small, incremental improvements is the key. Slow and thorough is often more effective (and faster) than trying to do it all at once.
So what can you do to be more successful next time you want to create a new habit? As you can see from the above, practicing mindfulness helps your brain to be able to do all of the things that you need when it comes to habits. Mindfulness gives you the awareness, focus and spaciousness to deal with the upheavals and the difficulties that we inevitably encounter when it comes to creating or changing habits. Mindfulness also provide you with the right attitude to create the inner and external environment to create success. If this is seems like a good idea, join me in my next Mindfulness course.
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May you thrive in life!