“We are what we repeatedly do” – Aristotle
A habit, good or bad, is something we do regularly without thinking much about it. It is an automatic behavioural activity which makes it possible for us to do many things, without expending too much mental effort. In other words, habits help us get through our day. Good habits create routine, order and efficiency and can free up our time to explore the larger experiences of life. Successful leaders often talk about the significance of the good habits they adopted early in their careers.
But as we all know not all our habits are good for us. Bad habits interrupt our lives and prevent us from accomplishing our goals. They can jeopardise our health, both mentally and physically. And can waste our time and energy.
So we resolve to change our bad habits. Sometimes we succeed but often we fail. Why? Simply put, habits are extremely hard to change.
How long does it actually take to change a habit? You have probably heard about the 21 day theory which stems from the work of Plastic Surgeon Maxwell Maltz who claimed in the 1960’s best-seller “Psycho Cybernetics” that it took his amputees an average of 21 days to adjust to the loss of a limb and therefore this must be the same for all big changes in life. A more recent study from Psychologist Phillippa Lally from UCL suggested it was taking her research subjects around 66 days to create unchanging automatic behaviour patterns. How depressing!
It’s clear that there are a wide range of variables that determine how long it takes to break a habit and no simple remedy. It really depends upon how much you want to break the habit with most people being relatively ambivalent about this. You may want to lose weight but love eating or are desperate to stop biting your nails but it helps reduce your stress levels. It’s also about how established the habit is: It is certainly easier to break a new habit than an old one. And finally it’s about the impact of the consequences of not breaking the habit – will something really bad happen if you don’t? Of course, some people have addictive or obsessive personality types that may make breaking a habit even harder to do.
So if you want to make a start at breaking a bad habit where do you start? New York Times Bestselling Author Gretchen Rubin says that there’s no “one size fits all” approach; we are all different and therefore different strategies will work for different people. In her book “Better than Before” Gretchen suggests that to change our habits we need to first know ourselves. In particular our “Tendencies” – how we respond to our expectations. There are 4 tendencies and a short quiz to help us work out which one we are: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers or Rebels. Once we understand our tendency it’s easier to work out a strategy for breaking our bad habits.
Once we know our tendency how do we actually work out a strategy? Here are a few simple things for you to consider:
- Understand the reason why you haven’t been able to break the habit before now. Once you establish the root cause of a problem it’s much easier to find a solution to it.
- Start with habits you can’t say no to. Keep it simple. If you can see progress it will keep you motivated to continue. Doing one yoga class a week is better than none. Build up from there.
- Choose habits that reinforce each other and link together. So if you are like me and would like to go to bed earlier each night and find more free time to read, deciding to go to bed an hour earlier read a book or an article or a magazine in bed goes hand in hand. Simple!
- Plan your new habit. Boring I know, but try to keep to a schedule and monitor your progress. It’s all about managing your time effectively so find a way to monitor what matters. There are all sorts of habit tracker apps you can use to help you with this – Strides, Goals on Track, LifeTick to name but a few. Keep a journal if you prefer a good old fashioned paper and pen technique.
- Develop a plan for if you fail or break your habit – we are all human and it’s ok to slip up once, but commit to not doing it twice.
In an attempt to keep my new habits on track I like to use a phrase I stole from a good friend of mine “Make the right choice” and sometimes I’ll turn this into a question “Is this the right choice?”. Of course there are times when I’ll just answer myself “No, but who cares?” Nine times out of ten it is the right one!
We’d love to hear your ideas for breaking bad habits and reinforcing the good ones too …