Our careers, no matter if we are a freelancer, entrepreneur, or work at a Fortune 500 company, are often defined by our accomplishments and failures. But our reputations are often encompassed in our habits. Are you the person that comes around and says “hello” on Monday morning, or are you the person that is consistently late with project delivery? Whether good or bad, habits are a part of who we are and how we act.
The good news is we can change old habits by adopting new ones. By understanding how habits form, how long they take to adopt, and what to do to adopt a new habit, you can put yourself in control and set yourself up for success. All it takes is the desire to change and the courage to go for it.
How Do Habits Form?
According to experts like Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit,” the answer is not very complicated. Duhigg suggests that are three parts to how a habit forms. When these parts happen in sequence, it forms a pattern called a “habit loop:”
The first part is a trigger that cues your brain to perform a specific behavior. This also takes the form of an urge to perform a behavior.
The second part is the routine, which is the specific behavior and what people general refer to as the habit.
The third part is the reward, which tells our brains that the routine has a positive outcome. It also helps our brain to perform the routine again when another trigger happens, therefore creating the habit loop.
Interestingly, research has shown that habitual behavior comes from the same part of the brain that processes emotions and pattern recognition. Perhaps even more interesting is that habitual behavior is not associated with the part of the brain that is tied to decision-making. This is one of the reasons why we simply don’t think about our habits, and why those habits can be so hard to change.
How Long Does It Take to Pick Up a New Habit?
Popular “wisdom,” and even a quick Google search, will usually tell us that it take about 21-30 days to form or change a habit. These nice numbers, unfortunately, are far from accurate.
A study performed by Phillippa Lally observed the behaviors of 96 people as they tried to form a new habit. The study revealed that on average it takes an average of 66 days to reliably ingrain a new habit. The amount of time also varied from person to person, with participants taking anywhere from 18 to 254 days to form a new habit. This shows that everyone is wired differently when it comes to learning automatic behaviors. Do not be discouraged if you’ve tried to adopt a habit and failed after 30 days, the evidence shows that it usually takes much longer and requires a lot more patience.
Tips for Adopting New Habits
Now that you understand how habits form and how long you can expect to reach your goal, read the following tips in order to set yourself up for success. For an even more comprehensive list than the one below, go to the Habit Change Cheatsheet.
1. Stick to just one: Trying to adopt a new habit, whether it’s a good new one, or an attempt to weed out a bad one, is by no means easy. The first thing you need to do is to make sure you focus on just one habit. Make it specific and make it easy to understand. “I want to be a better manager” or “I want to exercise more” are aspirations, not habits. Set specific goals, and work towards those goals by exercising your new habit.
2. Start with baby steps: Don’t bite off more than you can chew. In fact, it’s better to start small and build momentum. If you’re trying to exercise for an hour each day, start with 15 minutes. Once you set a specific goal, set yourself up for success by starting with just portion of that goal, then build up after a week or two.
3. Write down your plan: Writing down your goal is very important, but making a plan is crucial to success. In order to truly have a comprehensive plan, include your motivations, the obstacles you face, the triggers you want to set up (or dismantle) and the rewards you want or need. A written plan is there to tell you if you are succeeding and if not, how and what you need to change.
4. Put together a support network: It’s never a good idea to tackle hard projects alone. When it comes to forming a new habit, you’ll likely maintain that habit by surrounding yourself with a person or group of people that will support your new habit.
5. Ask for help: Chances are you will need help, even if you don’t want it and don’t want to ask for it. When that moment arrives, reach out to that support network. Whether you think so or not, they will be more than willing to help you, if simply for the reason that they had a small part in helping you succeed.
6. Schedule a time to talk: Consistently keeping someone updated on your progress will help you avoid minor setbacks from building into larger issues. Find a person you can speak to on a regular basis, even if it’s once a week for five minutes.
7. Be very honest: While some habits will be easier to form than others, we all need to be honest with our support network and ourselves. Being vulnerable does not mean you are weak, so be honest about the hard days and the roadblocks you are coming up against.
8. Stay self-aware: On your path to forming a new habit, you will no doubt experience many thoughts and feelings. Sometimes these feelings will be negative, and sometimes they will be positive. When it comes to negativity, try to be self-aware and don’t take anything too seriously. Accept the fact that you are not feeling positive and let the feeling pass. Remember that once the habit is formed, you won’t have to think about it and your neither positive nor negative feelings will matter.
9. Be positive: As part of your effort to become more self-aware, be positive when you’re able to. After all, you are taking on a challenge that many fail to even start, which is one little victory in and of itself!
10. Be prepared to deal with negative influencers: You might encounter people who do not understand what you are trying to accomplish or why you’re even trying. Some may even try to sabotage you or derail you from your goals. Be prepared for these people and these circumstances, and try to avoid them if you can.
11. Adopt a mantra: Guy Kawasaki once said that an organization needs a mantra to “help employees truly understand why the organization exists.” In the same vein, you need a mantra to help you understand what you are doing, and more importantly, to keep you motivated. It needs to be short and sweet, and get to the emotional heart of why you are trying to adopt a new habit.
12. Visualize: An often underutilized trick to successfully making any change in your life is to visualize a successful outcome. Imagine what you are doing, how you are doing it and how it feels. Then imagine the benefit of doing what you want to do, and how you’ll feel when you’re able to do it.
13. Set up a reward system: This directly relates into how habits are formed. For any habit to form, there needs to be a reward, even if it’s mental. In order to increase your chance of succeeding, set up milestones and rewards in order to have something to look forward to.
14. Make yourself accountable to others: In many cases, sharing your goals and intentions with others, even publicly, will give you a good reason not to fail. You can always justify failure to yourself, but when you have to hold yourself accountable to others and look them in the eye, the pressure to succeed builds.
15. Sleep and drink water: This is true for any task, whether hard or easy. The mind and body work much better when you are rested and hydrated. Have you ever been so tired that you’ve forgotten your wallet at home? Chances are picking up your wallet and putting it in your pocket or purse is a habit. When your mind is not rested, it sometimes forgets the simplest of tasks. When you are trying to pick up a new habit, it needs that rest and water even more.
16. Keep things in perspective: Don’t let anything seem like it is impossible. Every person has a multitude of habits that were once learned, and every person has the ability to change and adopt new habits. As hard as things may sometimes seem, keep things in perspective and take it one day at a time.
17. Be kind to yourself: There is a piece of good news from the Lally study mentioned earlier in the article. Lally found that even when people had setbacks, they were still able to succeed in the long run. That means that it’s okay if you’re not perfect or if you fail to meet your goals on an exact schedule. Be kind to yourself and don’t beat yourself up. The road to success is often a bumpy ride.
Author: Mircea Vlaicu