According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, habit is a settled tendency or usual manner of behavior. Then, to establish certain actions as habit presents a series of advantages, among them, a greater efficiency in the action (by the repetition and constancy), and the own benefits from the repetition of actions that we consider good.
Forming Habits Takes a Certain Time
There is a 21-day kabbalistic number, widely propagated by various Neuro-linguistic authors, like Sir John Hargrave in his book Mind Hacking: How to Change Your Mind for Good in 21 Days. Although much mentioned, its origin is not known for sure. Very likely, it was incorporated by the book Psycho-Cybernetics: The New Way to Get More Living Out of Life, by American plastic surgeon and researcher Maxwell Maltz, who noted the number 21 in his work. See what he says in his book: “…Do not allow yourself to become discouraged if nothing seems to happen when you set about practicing the various techniques outlined in this book for changing your self-image. Instead reserve judgment—and go on practicing—for a minimum period of 21 days. It usually requires a minimum of about 21 days to effect any perceptible change in a mental image. Following plastic surgery it takes about 21 days for the average patient to get used to his new face. When an arm or leg is amputated the “phantom limb” persists for about 21days. People must live in a new house for about three weeks before it begins to “seem like home.” These, and may other commonly observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.”
A 2009 study by Phillippa Lally and his colleagues Cornelia H. van Jaarsveld, Henry W. W. Potts, and Jane Wardle, (University College London), has observed the time in which people took to automate certain actions. The time the participants took to achieve reasonable automation varied from 18 to 254 days, and the average time was 66 days.
Whether it’s 21 or 66 days, I think it is plausible to adopt an initial number of 30 days as a goal for the repetition of the habit we want to create. Over time, you can adjust this number yourself, if necessary.
To form habits is simple, but, not necessarily, easy. Building good habits requires time (as we have just seen), plus much discipline, determination in its execution, and willingness. A 2015 resarch of the MIT Massachusetts Institute of Technology, conducted by researchers Theresa M. Desrochers, Ken-ichi Amemori, and Ann M. Graybiel, revealed that neurons in the brain weigh the costs and benefits to drive habit formation . Like everything else in nature, our brain looks for an optimal cost-benefit ratio to perform its functions. This leads us to believe that when we consciously want to introduce a new habit, we need to define what are the costs (what should I do?) And what are the benefits (what do I get?), making sure to “present” to our brain all the benefits involved. This is a way of intelligently planning the formation of a new habit.
Habit planning contemplates the characterization of the benefit, and the description of the action involved in the execution of the habit. Let’s look at each of the steps:
- Benefit: Creating a habit requires, as we have already said, discipline, determination in its execution, and willingness, so it is essential to have very clear in mind the benefit that we are seeking. It is necessary to define a purpose, that is, what is the gain that we will have by acting habitually in this or that way. We may even characterize the short-term gains (those arising from the simple execution of the action), and the long-term ones (those arising from the introduction of the action as a habit).
- Action: We must describe the procedure or routine that we are engaging to get the benefit we want. It is important that we keep in mind, as succinctly as possible, but as much detailed as necessary, the description of the action we must take, and the behavior we have to take.
Example of the Fitness Center
Let’s see an example of easy understanding. We are seeking the benefit of improving health, controlling weight, and increasing readiness at work. For this, we understand that we need to start activities three times a week at a gym. Let’s start our activities at 06:30 in the morning, for 50 minutes. Therefore, the formation of our habit would be described as follows:
- Benefit: general well-being, improve health, control weight, and increase disposition at work;
- Action: set the alarm clock to play every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 05:30 in the morning. Eat some bananas and take a pre workout shake, then go do activities at the gym, for 50 minutes. Before you say that waking up at 05:30 is too early, I mean that I’ve already trained for more than 5 years, waking up at 4:30 a.m. but of course you should get a schedule compatible with your routine, and this can be at late afternoon. When people find out that you wake up early to go and do some physical activity, they usually say, “Wow! You have to really like to wake up early! ” What?! How many people do you know who really like to wake up so early? … Even more so on the winter days. I, of course, would rather wake up at 06:30, than at 04:30. What I like is the “benefit” I get doing that, and that’s exactly what moves me, which makes me wake up early. Likewise, the benefit you want to get is what should move you!
In this example of the gym, every time the alarm rings, you will take action, realizing the reward you will have, and thinking about the benefit you will be enjoying at the end of the workout (besides the short-term well-being, improved long-term health). Obviously, there will be mornings you might think, “Not today, I’m tired … I did not sleep well … I’d better get some more sleep.” This type of thinking is a way of being reluctant to change and embrace the new habit. This is normal when it is not clear what benefit you are seeking, or even the relevance of it to you. Make your brain visualize the benefit, create a positive mental image, it is important to stimulate the execution of the habit by facilitating its creation.