Ever heard of automaticity? How about the link between automaticity and the question of ‘How long does it take to form a habit?’ The connection between the two might surprise you.
“Do you take your iron supplement every day?” my doctor asked me. “Your blood panel shows you have anemia.”
“Um…” I scrambled for a reply, “most days.”
“Most days doesn’t cut it,” she scolded. “You need to take iron every. single. day. if you want to have more energy and avoid anemia.”
“I know, I just can’t seem to remember.” I noticed a slight whine to my voice and cringed.
“You need a trigger,” she said.
“Trigger? So I can shoot myself when I forget?”
“No,” she said with a smile. “I set my toothbrush on top of my bottle of iron pills, and that triggers a reminder to take the iron each evening.”
“Ah. I get it!” My doctor had revealed one of the keys to forming healthy habits and routines. Now, to figure out my own triggers and start using them to form healthy habits. Anything to prevent fatigue and burn out.
How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?
Last week we talked about setting short-term goals, and learned that short-term goals fall into two categories—achievement goals and habit goals. This week we’ll explore the question, “How long does it take to form a habit?”
As a kid, I remember someone telling me that if I did something for 21 days, I would have formed a habit. Unfortunately, that never seemed to work for me. This notion of three-week habit-forming started back in the 50s when Dr. Maxwell Maltz observed that his plastic surgery patients took about 21 days to internalize their changed outward appearances.
Dr. Maltz used the term ‘about 21 days,’ and the public ran with it. Unfortunately, his observation turned into a hard fact in the mind of the public. The 21-day myth may have discouraged you from taking iron pills, drinking adequate amounts of water, or making healthy choices at meal times. I know my failures to form habits undermined my desire to have a growth mindset.
“‘habits’ are defined as actions that are triggered automatically in response to contextual cues that have been associated with their performance.”Benjamin Gardner
That means the length of time it takes to form good habits has more to do with contextual cues (triggers) than it does with a person’s strength of character or will-power.
Some habits form easily and from a young age. Everyone knows to brush their teeth before going to bed or to put pajamas on before climbing between the covers. You automatically do these things because the routine has turned into a habit.
Five Steps to Forming Good Habits
1. Know Your Why
Why do you want to form a new habit? Examining your motivation will help you understand your why—and once you know your why, you’ll have more success in forming the new habit.
Listening to someone else’s advice may work for you, but doctors have told me for years that I need to take iron pills without me forming a new habit. Once I understood the clear connection between anemia and fatigue I felt more motivated. I had to examine my attitudes about aging and turning into ‘that-old-person-who-takes-40-supplements-a-day’ kind of person.
Taking iron will give me more energy and help me to accomplish more each day. One little pill does not equal 40, nor does it equal my image of an aging hypochondriac. When I remembered how little time it took me to remember to take other medications that I need on a regular basis, I realized I had lied to my doctor. She probably hears similar lies all the time.
If the habit has importance, you’ll find a way to form it in your life.If a habit has importance, you'll find a way to form it in your life! #habits #goals #SelfCareSunday Click To Tweet
2. Find a Trigger
In order to form a new habit, you need to link it to something you already do automatically. For example, I started flossing my teeth every night after I brushed my teeth as a teenager. I linked flossing, the new habit, to my automatic habit—brushing my teeth before bed.
I’d also seen a poster in my dentist’s office that said, “You don’t have to floss all your teeth—just the ones you want to keep!” Talk about motivation and knowing my why.
Once you know your why, choose a trigger—something you already do automatically. Set the goal of performing the new action along with the automatic action. For example, ‘I will take my iron pill each evening when I clean my fingernails.’ I hate going to bed with dirt under my nails, so I set my iron pills next to my nail clippers.
3. Don’t Try the Impossible
Benjamin Gardner, a lecturer in health psychology gives a great definition of impossible:
“Patients need to select a new behaviour (for example, eat an apple) rather than give up an existing behaviour (do not eat fried snacks) because it is not possible to form a habit for not doing something.”Benjamin Gardner
I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the number of times I’ve told myself I would form a habit of not doing something. In fact, New Year’s resolutions usually consist of this flawed strategy.
We’ve probably all fallen victim to this exercise in futility—just look at your New Year’s resolutions and analyze how many of them involve impossible scenarios.
Instead, think of habits as good things you want to add to your life instead of behaviors you won’t not do.
4. Aim for Automaticity
Automaticity means we perform the action without thinking about it. I don’t have to think about flossing my teeth anymore, because I have performed the action after brushing my teeth for over 40 years.
Taking iron pills has yet to move from ‘forming a good habit’ to automaticity, though. Since August, I have used my Full Focus Planner (affiliate link) and its handy habit tracker. This allows me to see the progress I have made towards automaticity.
Sometimes, offering yourself extrinsic rewards will help you achieve your habit goals more quickly. I bribed myself with a new book for taking my iron pills every day for a month. After a month of getting enough iron, the intrinsic reward (more energy, less fatigue) kicked in. Reward yourself in the gap between forming a good habit and automaticity.Go ahead and reward yourself in the gap between forming a good habit and automaticity! #automaticity #habits #SelfCareSunday Click To Tweet
5. The Road includes Detours, not Defeats
People give up on their intentions to form a good habit when they miss a day and think they have to start over. I’ve used this fallacy as an excuse before. I miss a day or two and give in to defeatist thinking. “I’ll never form the habit, I might as well quit trying.”
It may take almost a year for you to form a habit, and according to Phillipa Lally, one of the researchers involved in the study on habit formation, “Missing one opportunity to perform the behaviour did not materially affect the habit formation process.”
Aim for performing the habit most of the time—you can include this in your SMARTER goal-setting exercise. “Take my iron pills 85% of the time for three months.” The average amount of time necessary for forming a habit hovers around 66 days.
Of course, it depends on the complexity of your habit. Do you want to walk 10,000 steps a day? Or remember to take an iron pill? If you want to form a big habit, experts suggest breaking it down into smaller, manageable steps.
Form a habit of parking in the back forty when you go shopping, first. Next, add walking one extra block a week for several weeks. You get the picture. Small changes equal lasting, habit-driven changes.
Chunk your habit-forming into smaller goals in order to find success at the larger goal.
Yes, You CAN!
No one can answer the question of ‘How long does it take to form a habit,’ because as unique human beings, we all have a different answer. If you examine your why, find a trigger, write positive goal statements, aim for automaticity, and accept detours, you’ll experience success at forming new habits. Don’t give up. You CAN form new habits!
My iron-taking habit and increase in energy proves it.
Come back next week for hacks on setting achievement goals.