Why habits matter, how long they take to form and how to create habits you can stick to. Like, actually stick to!
At a basic level, we have habits because they make our lives easier. Being able to perform simple tasks automatically saves mental energy, leaving us free concentrate on and do other things.
So why do habits matter? Well, our habits shape nearly 50% of our daily lives. And while a habit can seem completely insignificant in isolation, when we do it day in and day out, year after year, the impact can really add up.
In a way, our lives are the sum of our habits. That’s why it pays to foster the ones that make us happy, healthy and productive and replace or upgrade the ones that bring us down. The saying goes: Change your habits, change your life.
Behavioural psychologists call this the ‘habit loop’ because if the reward is enjoyable, we’ll want to repeat the routine (action) the next time the reminder occurs – whether the habit is good for us or not!
That’s why a habit we don’t want, like scoffing chocolate in the wardrobe (no judgment) might ‘take hold’ overnight, whereas a positive habit, like learning the guitar, might need consistent effort over time.
The immediacy and power of the reward affects how ‘naturally’ a habit forms and how strongly it sticks. People often ask how long it takes to form a habit. Scientists used to say 21 days. Modern research suggests it’s closer to 66 days.
But habits expert Gretchen Rubin suggests not getting too hung up on timeframes. Difficulty forming good habits is totally normal but “developing a good habit is worth the struggle because once you’re used to it, you don’t have to exert much self-control to keep it up.”
Case and point: 28% of New Year’s resolutions fail in the first week and only 9% ‘go the distance’.
So where are we going wrong? Or more importantly, how can we improve our chances of success?
One of the key things we can do is make it tiny! Willpower is like a muscle that takes time to build, and motivation comes in waves… powerful on some days, pitiful on others! To overcome motivational dips, we need to start with a habit that is so easy – so deliciously small – that it takes virtually zero motivation to do it. E.g. If you like the thought of meditating for half hour bursts, start by doing just a minute a day, at a time that suits, and make it a priority. When that’s effortless, add a minute… or four! But start small.