It takes 21 days to form a habit — or so we used to think. That notion came from the popular 1960 book “Psycho-Cybernetics” by plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz. We now know that Maltz’s math was way off: According to a 12-week study conducted by researchers at University College London in 2009, the average amount of time it takes to form a new habit is 66 days — more than three times longer than Maltz’s original estimate.
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A habit also becomes more difficult to form when the habit itself is more difficult to do. Meditating for five minutes a day is probably a much easier goal to set than, say, going to the gym every day, because there are so many other factors (external as well as internal) that could get in the way. As a therapist, I work with many patients who want to keep the habits they make, but they struggle as they get started. Thankfully, there are ways to make sticking to a habit easier.
Here are four tips to help you succeed:
1. Examine where the resistance is coming from
You know what it is you need or want to do, but you keep finding so many reasons not to do it. Blame it on bad weather, on laundry day, on the new season of your favorite show — whatever. We both know that there’s something else getting in the way of you doing the thing you said you wanted to do.
The trick is exploring the root of your resistance. For many, the biggest of which is that the juice just doesn’t feel like it’ll be worth the squeeze. As Charles Duhigg writes in his iconic book “The Power of Habit,” habits begin “because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort.” But if a new habit doesn’t seem like it’ll save you any effort — or worse, if you think it might take even more of an effort — it’s not going to be easy to start, let alone stick to.
If you find yourself dragging your feet instead of hopping to it, try writing down all the ways that the new habit will save you effort in the short- and long-run. For example, starting a new supplement regimen might require you to set a few minutes aside each day to take the pills, but maybe this new routine will give you more energy, boost your mood, and save you a significant amount of time down the line because you won’t need to visit the doctor as often. Try this way of thinking for whatever your desired habit is, then take a deep breath and just do it one time. The rest will follow.
2. Add the habit to your schedule
Creating a routine schedule is one of the most common exercises I do with the patients I work with. Having a routine is a great way to maintain your mental health, stay on track, and make sure you know what you need to do. Schedules tell you what to expect and help you get more done, as well as also help to prevent you from procrastinating with some other activity.
If a paper schedule isn’t your thing, then set calendar reminders in your phone when it’s time to meditate, go for a run, take your supplements, call your family — whatever your desired habit is. If it’s on your calendar, it’ll be on your mind.
3. Find a way to hold yourself accountable
You are more likely to stick to a habit if something — or someone — is holding you accountable. That could be having a friend commit to forming the habit with you, or finding a way to reward yourself each time you do it. Especially if the habit is something that you “have” to do, it becomes a much more enjoyable experience if you’re getting some immediate gratification beforehand or afterward, whether that’s your morning cup of coffee or an hour of screen time.
4. Be kind to yourself and don’t give up
Everyone makes mistakes, and that’s OK. Maybe you overslept. Maybe you had one drink too many. Maybe you skipped a workout. The problem is when the mistake becomes the habit itself. James Clear, author of “Atomic Habits,” writes that a good rule of thumb is to “never miss twice.” That means that you can, and should, forgive yourself for falling off the horse once, and that you should get right back on. Don’t throw up your hands and say, “I’m already down so I might as well stay down.” You aren’t bad for slipping up, you haven’t failed, and you certainly don’t need to start all the way back at square one. Be kind to yourself and simply get back in the habit.