Depending on who you ask, it can take anywhere from 1 day to 254 days to create a new habit.
Some of the trouble deciding starts with how you define the word “habit.”
The dictionary definition refers to a habit as “a regular tendency or practice…that is hard to give up.”
This makes sense to me. Everything I am trying to change right now is very hard to give up.
And the reason I still want to give these things up is because the pain of keeping them has now officially become greater than the fear of letting them go.
For this realization, I must give full credit to a certain set of very unwelcome microscopic viral visitors.
As the global pandemic has continued to unfold and evolve (or devolve depending on where you are located and how well your local community is abiding by social distancing guidelines, which in my local community is not well, to put it mildly), it has become easier and easier to recognize the old patterns and habits that are no longer serving me well.
Some of these habits have been relatively easy to change. I suspect this is because this is not the first time in my life I have seen these particular habits crop back up and so I am getting easier at catching myself when I start doing them again.
Some of these habits have been a lot harder to change. And I think that this is because these habits are ones I’ve never really carved out the space and time to tackle head-on. They are more ingrained. Deeper. Older. More a part of my definition of “me.”
And just like COVID-19 has given me more space and time to notice these, a lot of the credit for my newfound ability to tackle these deeper, older habits has to go to two of my most important mentors right now, intuitive author and teacher Sonia Choquette and author and business coach Christine Kane.
I started working with Sonia’s courses about a year and a half ago. I started working with Christine Kane, my life and business coach, about five months ago.
In choosing to do this, I have invested more time and money into my own self-development than I have in years. The money part in particular required a big departure from my habitual attitude towards spending money on myself – not my animals, not my casa, not my bills, not even thrifting, but on me, just me.
It has paid off. I have to say it.
But still, there is this natural impatience to see the pay-off from the self-investment RIGHT. NOW.
When will I stop being the old me and start being the new me? Today? Tomorrow? Perhaps by the weekend?
Like you, probably, I have heard those stories of people who kicked a seriously bad habit, such as a decades-long nicotine or alcohol habit (I actually know someone who did this), overnight.
This is admirable and amazing. It is also why, in the introduction here, I mentioned that some people are able to kick a habit in as little as one day.
Although I must say, the habits I am trying to kick are a little less…tangible.
Complaining. Self-hate. Body insecurity. Blaming outside forces for inside misery. Low self-esteem. Depression. Anxiety.
The reason I say they are less tangible is because they have many disguises. It is easy to know which habit I am trying to kick if I am holding a glass of wine in my hand after vowing to never drink again.
It is a little less easy when my creative and determined mind is trying to convince me that the anxiety I feel is because of COVID or income stream rather than perpetual self-doubt and self-criticism dragging me down yet again.
I blogged last week about how Christine Kane is helping me step back from naming, blaming complaining about or judging emotions (e-motions) I might be feeling that might then translate into any of the above.
This tool has been very helpful.
It gives me a breath or two’s worth of space in between the habit itself and having the option to pursue it or not pursue it.
Some other research says breaking a habit can take up to 254 days of effort. This research focused on tangible new habits such as eating more healthy or exercising every day. The researchers studied 96 volunteers, allowing each one to choose the new habit they wanted to pursue as long as it was within the study parameters of drinking or eating healthily or exercising or something similar like starting a meditation practice.
The study lasted 84 days. Some of the participants were able to achieve what the researchers called a good rate of “automaticity” within 18 days. For others, it took up to 254 days – far beyond when the study itself was scheduled to conclude.
Then the researchers did some complicated math and decided 66 days is a good round average number for how long it takes to automatically turn to the new habit rather than an older habit that is no longer desired.
When I was in college, I often heard professors talk about the “40 day rule,” which was that it took 40 days to establish a new habit. There are other schools of thought that say 21 days is the optimal number of days you must do something new before it gets encoded into your brain.
While my particular brain likes having such hard data to support its continued effort – “okay fine we will do this for 21/40/66/254 days, but if we don’t see results by then, forget it” – I am now finding that hinging my efforts on any particular number can be counterproductive.
My coach Christine Kane has given me a new model of effort for changing old habits into new better habits: “as long as it takes.”
I resonate with this because it really helps me decide which habits are worth pouring my all into.
For example, even though I have thyroid disease and eating gluten causes my joints to hurt, I might not be seriously motivated to give up all gluten forevermore. This is mainly because my mom is a master chef and when she puts out a freshly made batch of gluten-rich blueberry muffins or a homemade lemon meringue pie, I often discover right away that a little day-after joint aching is a small price to pay for such deliciousness.
If I had celiac disease like a dear friend of mine has just been diagnosed with, however, it wouldn’t matter how delicious that pie looked. I wouldn’t eat it.
But let’s say, for example, that I am battling a dip back into depression, something I haven’t had to face to any serious degree for some years now. I have traced the start of it back to an increase in self-criticism and body insecurity. I hate feeling depressed and it also scares me. Although it is easy to forget how bad depression feels when I am not depressed, it doesn’t take very long at all after realizing I am depressed to become willing to do anything to get out of it.
So if self-criticizing thoughts are the equivalent of a glutinous blueberry muffin, my motivation to not eat it is equivalent to what it would be if I had celiac disease. I simply cannot go there. I won’t go there. It is nearly instantaneous once I make the connection between the two.
Nope. Not for me.
But then the depression might lift and – as some of my favorite mentors have often shared – that reveals a deeper layer of work underneath, sort of like peeling back an onion’s layers.
And so inevitably, the depression will return again and seem even more stubborn than it was before.
For these sorts of new habits, where (I suspect) the old neural grooves cut right down to the core inside my brain circuitry, I might literally have to devote the whole rest of my life to truly root them out and replace them with new more productive, better-feeling, life-affirming habits.
So be it.
Here in the deep South in Texas, we have lots of mosquitos. Every spring as temperatures warm a little more each day and humidity inches up incrementally until it is hard to tell the daily temperature reading apart from the daily humidity reading, the colonies of mosquitoes get denser and denser, hungrier and hungrier.
When it rains, which it does often, they travel in packs. The whole pack will descend down over my head and buzz-swarm me looking for the best places to dig in.
This year, for the first time ever, I ordered two mosquito buckets from my pest company. In two days, the mosquito population in my tiny yard has diminished by 95 percent. I can spend 10 minutes outside and the heat and humidity is more bothersome than the skeeters.
And I have to say – I am SO PROUD of myself.
It takes the time it takes. Point being, I realize the mosquitoes may never entirely go away. That is a deep groove in the planet’s own neural pathways that even our best and brightest minds have yet to fully eradicate. Some of my own habits are this deep, too.
But when I absolutely, positively, refuse to ever give up hope, when I have officially declared war on a habit and will not let up, ever, it is just amazing how creative I can become about finding my way to my goal.
What do you think? How long does it take to create a new habit? 1 day? 18 days? 21 days? 40 days? 66 days? 254 days? As long as it takes?
With great respect and love,