Habit Hogwash!

The past four weeks we’ve been focused on cultivating two important nutrition habits: eating until 80% full and eat a protein dense food with each meal.   In essence, we’ve allocated 2 weeks for each habit.

But how long does it take for a new behavior or habit to stick, to become automatic, or to simply just be what you do consistently without having to think about it or track it?

On average, it takes more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact. And how long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances (according to a study conducted by Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher at University College London).  In the study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit.

In other words, if you want to set your expectations appropriately, the truth is that it will probably take you anywhere from two months to eight months to build a new behavior into your life — not 21 days that we hear so often.

Interestingly, the researchers also found that “missing one or two opportunities to perform the desired behavior did not materially affect the habit formation process.” In other words, it doesn’t matter if you mess up every now and then. Building better habits is not an all-or-nothing process.

So before you feel like a new habit isn’t sticking and get down on yourself, realize that it’s supposed to take longer than a couple or few weeks! There is no need to judge yourself if you can’t master a behavior in 21 short days.

More importantly, remember that you don’t have to be perfect.  Making a mistake once or twice has no measurable impact on your long-term habits.  Look at a new habit like an experiment, give yourself permission to make mistakes, and develop processes for getting back on track sooner, rather than later.

Embracing longer timelines can help us realize that habits are a process and not an event.  All of the “21 Days” hype can make it really easy to think, “Oh, I’ll just do this and it’ll be done.”  But habits never work that way.  We have to embrace the process.  We have to commit to making the change, even when we mess up, get frustrated, and the excitement wears off (which it always seems to do after the start, and before you recognize you’re mastering a new behavior).

Your friend in fitness,

Brian Calkins

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