You can make a habit stick faster than the “experts” say

February 25, 2021 by Joshua
in Habits, Tips

All the “experts” have some study for how long it takes for a habit to stick. Here are a bunch of articles from searching “how long to start a habit” not worth reading that give the common answers:

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  • How Long Does It Take for a New Behavior to Become Automatic? begins: “According to a 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit. The study also concluded that, on average, it takes 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic.”
  • How Long Does it Actually Take to Form a New Habit? (Backed by Science) says, “Maxwell Maltz was a plastic surgeon in the 1950s when he began noticing a strange pattern among his patients. When Dr. Maltz would perform an operation — like a nose job, for example — he found that it would take the patient about 21 days to get used to seeing their new face. Similarly, when a patient had an arm or a leg amputated, Maxwell Maltz noticed that the patient would sense a phantom limb for about 21 days before adjusting to the new situation.”
  • How Long Does it Take to Form a Habit? begins “It may take over 60 days to form a habit, but if you really want it, it’s well worth the effort.”
  • How Long Does it Take to Form a Habit? 21 Days? 66 Days? says “While historically, people have thought that it takes 21 days to create a new habit (or change an existing one), recent claims have pushed that number up to 66 days. In fact, the most recent significant study shows that it can take anywhere between 18 and 254 days to form a new habit–which averages to about 66 days.”

What the studies all get wrong

They’re saying how long it takes for your first habit to stick, or at least an early one. What’s wrong with that? Well, how long did it take you to read a book when you’d just learned to read? How long do you take to prepare a dinner for four when you don’t know how to cook?

Everyone takes time to do things before they learn the relevant skills. Everyone also improves with practice. Forming habits takes skills you learn with practice too.

Your second habit will stick faster than your first, your third faster still, and so on.

I recently started to sing daily. The habit stuck from day one. I haven’t given it much thought. I just practice singing. How did it stick fast? Well, before then I picked up the habit of meditating two days out of five.

Before that picking up garbage daily.

Before that, avoiding packaged food.

Before that, always taking the stairs, never the elevator to my apartment.

Before that taking cold showers every fifth day.

Before that, deciding to wake up, make the bed, and cross the room to turn off the alarm in under sixty seconds every day.

Before that exercising on a five-day cycle (hence the five-day cycles for cold showers and meditating).

Before that doing calisthenics daily.

Before that posting to this blog daily.

Oh yeah, somewhere in there I decided to floss daily instead of when I felt like it.

I don’t know if I’ve habitualized my practices more or less than others, but I’m still doing all of them, some going back over ten years. I’ve done enough to have developed relevant skills

  • Assessing my motivation to start
  • Assessing what might distract or discourage me
  • Developing tricks to start
  • Connecting the new habit with other parts of my life

And others I can’t think of off the top of my head. In short, I can tell if I’m going to keep something up. I may not start if I sense I don’t want to, the time isn’t right in my life, or other reason. Otherwise, once I start, it’s on. I can’t think of the last habit I dropped.

Anyone can

Anyone can develop habit-starting skills with practice. If you keep giving up habits, you’ll develop the skills of giving up habits. If you keep keeping up habits, you’ll develop the skills of keeping them up. Then you’ll start them confidently and to stick.

If you haven’t started many habits, you may take 21 days, 66 days, 254 days, or some other time, but with practice you can bring it down to immediate. Who cares how fast Usain Bolt could run before he practiced? We care about his potential. If you practice, you’ll reach your potential.

Develop habit-forming techniques by starting a few simple habits to last a year or so—as simple as flossing can work. Stick with them long enough to develop deliberate habit sticking skills. Now you’ll be able to make new habits stick right away, including big important even life-changing ones.

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