Habit Forming: Winning the Game of Permanent Change

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Like most people, I’m 100% in favor of good habits. In fact, I can’t get enough of them. I want them yesterday. I’d like to flip a switch, and like the vibrating machines designed for passive weight loss, arrive at good habits without much effort, preserving my time for better things.

Many years of erroneous thinking, lackluster results and some stellar failures made me curious about why I kept failing and I kept searching…endlessly…unfailingly…systematically…obsessively, in other words, like all the other obsessive Italian and Irish people I’m derived from.

By some accidental good luck, when I started the My 500 Word challenge, I shot right past the part about a “31-day Challenge” and signed myself up for a full year of dedication. Somehow, I knew that the struggle to change was too hard, the pitfalls too numerous, the opportunities for ADD or depression too prevalent in my history for me to expect an easy result. I knew my chances of being the weakest among you (as yet undisclosed) were absolutely certain.

Bottom line: this underestimation of self paid off.

It turns out that I was accidentally right. Thirty one days was not enough time for me to achieve permanent change. Thirty-one days is not enough time for almost anyone to form a major habit.

Some of the latest research on habit formation is being conducted by Phillippa Lally a health psychology researcher at University College London. In a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Lally and her research team decided to figure out just how long it actually takes to form a new habit. Her study findings–based on observations of 96 people–revealed it takes at minimum twice as long as the going myth of 21 days to form a new habit. Lest you think that 96 is not a large enough sample size, it’s important to realize that most of the information which espouses faster methods of habit formation is anecdotal: it has NOT been tested with any rigor. There is even LESS proof that these short-form approaches work. No, there is NOT a conspiracy to keep good information from the people but rather, good information has trouble rising above the noise of the ever-present wishful thinking.

Change is hard. I wish there were better news.

How long it actually takes to form a new habit varies widely based on individuals, circumstances, and the complexity of the habit being formed. In reality,

it will probably take anywhere from two to eight months to build a new habit.

Now, doesn’t that make better sense? I suspect underneath the surface, some of us secretly knew that while some people could manifest significant change in 21 or 31 days, we weren’t among them. So, even if your habit forming style occurs at the glacial speed of a crock pot, there is still hope for you. You might just need to adjust your expectations.

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This latest research also shows habit formation is not an all or nothing experience. We can fail along the way to habit with little ill-effect.

Researchers found that “missing one opportunity to perform the behavior did not materially affect the habit formation process.”

In this case, “one” does not refer to a single instance and rather, that a single failure does not derail all of one’s progress to date.

So, what is the fastest way to make permanent change? Take your estimate of how long it will take to form a new habit and multiply that by something between 2x and 8x. If you want to be efficient, make it 8x, because the result will be the same regardless, because if you have formed the habit, you will still be doing the same action in month eight.

When did I know I had a permanent writing habit? I know it was sometime in July when traveling overseas made writing difficult. By that point, there was simply no question of if I was writing and only when was I writing. By then, I had learned that new habits weren’t achieved once and then set aside, but were integrated into us fully like the experiences of long term relationships with partners, family, children, or pets: they become part of who we really are. The primary difference is that once we have truly formed a habit, it is processed in a different region of the brain, moved from the prime real estate reserved for active decision making and this is a good thing.  In a day and age where decision fatigue is so prevalent, we want our good habits to reside in that bullet-proof security of our own internal auto-pilot where we do them as habitually as we brush our teeth or do our laundry.

Here is a summary of the take-home messages from the study. I’m providing a link to Dr. Lally’s research here.

  • Habits take much longer to form than was previously understood
  • Periodic lapses on the road to a habit have no measurable impact on long-term habits
  • Curiosity about failure/strategies to get back on track work better than shame and judgement
  • Understanding that habits are a process made easier by managed expectations
  • Commitment to making small and incremental improvements works best

Even in our story lore, we want people to struggle to achieve their aims and a story without this struggle and sufficient try/fail cycles lacks significance and is dismissed as fantasy or extreme good luck. We know that, by the struggle, we become something better and finer, a whole much greater than the sum of its parts.

11 thoughts on “Habit Forming: Winning the Game of Permanent Change

  1. GREAT post and very timely! Just when I was feeling self-deprecatory for not having written every day of the year…or exercising multiple times per week this year…. This is helping for my goal-setting for 2015. Thank you!

    1. Roslynn, you have a writing habit even if you aren’t “perfect” i.e. are unable to write everyday. I’d warrant this, you’ve written far more in 2014 with your habit just as it is. There’s always room for all of us to improve. NOOOO self-deprecation. It does NOT help you to form a good habit. Thank you for reading.

  2. Hey Tonia

    I thoroughly cherished this very timely blog post. I have been pondering about habits too – in fact, I just bought “The Power of Habits” by Charles Duhigg, an exciting non-fiction about ‘why we do what we do in life’.

    The good news? No habit is permanent – with the right combination of cues, triggers and rewards, any habit can be changed,.

    BUT, like you said, there is no fixed formula to how or why habits change. Why does everyone like to simplify the complexities of life? Not everything fits into a neat box.

    YOU hit the nail right on the head – every individual is different, and by giving yourself the permission to explore your journey at your own pace, you enjoy this adventure called life.

    Thanks hun
    Kitto

    1. Krithika, thank you. I learned about Duhigg’s book after I read this study. His work is a great supplement and has many useful ideas. I was serious when I said I was multi-skilled in failure. I;ve tried every wrong approach to get this write and can solely attest that even people who think they can’t form habits are wrong. Better to get curious and figure out what makes each of us tick. Thank you for reading and for sharing.

  3. Good stuff here. Informative and encouraging. I’ve found that since joining the 500 Words group (which I also intended to stay with more than 31 days prepared to fail) that on the days that I don’t write I genuinely miss it. That’s such a step up for me.
    Now, if I can only gain the bravely to share more. Maybe that would be a good goal for 2015.

  4. Interestingly I came across Dean Wesley Smith’s post today about the same subject, who’s been posting his daily writing for 501 days now:

    TOPIC OF THE NIGHT: The value of streaks.

    After doing this daily blog for over 500 days now, I can attest to the value of a streak. And the power of a streak.

    Some good friends of mine had short-story-per-week streaks going and hit them for a year or more. Other professional writers had streaks of writing at least 2,000 words per day without missing any day, and one of those streaks went into three years solid.

    Trust me, you have a streak going, the streak adds power to continuing. Streaks can really get you through bad days.

    That power usually starts hitting solidly on a daily streak around 30 days.

    There were many nights I just thought I would put up a note saying, “Gone fishing” and skip this nightly routine. But I didn’t, so for over 500 days now, you folks have been following along on my silly life, the struggles, the naps, the collections, the work, and so on.

    http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/writing-in-public-year-2-month-5-day-14-501/

  5. Thanks, Tonia! Great insight. I believe you are right. From my experience, 60 days isn’t long enough. It takes much longer. I hope to jump on the writing wagon again in June and hang in there longer. I journal a lot, but I don’t usually count that toward my writing challenge.

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