This article originally published on Dec. 31, 2016
Have you made a New Year's resolution? I'm afraid the odds of sticking to your promises are stacked against you. According to a study from the University of Scranton, only 8 percent of Americans carry out their well-intentioned resolutions. It begs the question: What makes habits stick?
A habit is a settled behavioral tendency. One popular belief holds that it takes 21 days for a habit to crystallize. This perception seems to germinate from the work of plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz, who observed that most patients begin to readjust to their altered appearance after 21 days. He detailed these anecdotes in a blockbuster book, "Psycho-Cybernetics." Scholarly research from University College of London has discredited that mythical 21-day theory. Instead, UCL's findings suggest it takes 66 days for “automaticity” to plateau.
My own experience has taught me there is no habit-forming magic number. Sustained behavioral change is subjective and contextured. These 10 lessons from everyday life have proved true time and again.
1. Know thyself.
As the fireworks rocketed over London to herald in the new millennium, I knew I was in a rut. I'd been working for the same corporation since leaving university, and there was simply no magic left. I had cloaked my trailblazing personality in gray flannel, and I was on constant autopilot. I knew what I didn't want from work and life. But for me, changes started taking place only when I asked myself what I really did want. What did I value? What was my purpose? How could I best use my talents?
I began getting to know myself. I took a few psychometric tests to better understand my preferences, strengths and blind spots. I prioritized my values and then set vision and goals that served my personality, skill set and outlook on life. I formed new habits more easily because they aligned with the plan I'd laid out for myself.
The takeaway: It's very difficult to create sustained habits when our vision is unachievable and our goals are disconnected from our core values and abilities.
2. Understand the case for change.
One of my core values centers on wellness and healthy living. I bought an expensive juice extractor after reading about the benefits of juicing vegetables. That kitchen gadget sat in the cupboard for a year. Why? Because it was a nightmare to clean. It took so much effort to get rid of all the bits that clogged up the jaws and conduits.
My new habit wasn't sticking because of the very scientific PITA factor. In layman's terms, the pain-in-the-ass ratio to extract the juice outweighed the payoff: a small glass of strangulated carrots and beets dribbling out of the machine. I returned the juicer and devoted greater attention to the research behind juicing. I examined the nutritional composition of select vegetables and how each enhances fitness, health and energy levels. What I learned made me want to try again.
The takeaway: Habits crystallize only when we better understand why we're going through the motions.
3. Tap into your passion.
I took violin lessons as a child, but my violin teacher always admonished me for not practicing enough. It's true: I didn't. Truth be told, I never became much of a violinist. My grandma called me little Paganini, but I lacked the talent and passion to advance beyond sounding like a cat. Paraphrasing Aristotle, Will Durant wrote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.” Mastering a musical instrument takes many hours of dedicated practice, but it also requires passion and aptitude.
The takeaway: We can't excel in everything. Sometimes we need to let go of things that are not meant to be and focus on the things we're good at rather than the things people want us to be good at.
4. Connect to other habits.
I run a leadership-consulting business, but I always find time in the day to read, write and research. I never miss a day. Why? I'm passionate about learning, and those daily tasks strategically link to my consulting work. Reading new approaches to leadership and sharing my own point of view builds my position as a thought leader and elevates my reputation. This connects crucially and positively to becoming a highly regarded consultant (at least, that's the theory).
The takeaway: Keystone habits promote and reinforce other habits.
5. Start small and build incrementally.
I recently finished digitalizing my extensive CD collection. I put off doing it for years because the rigmarole of loading and burning all those individual CDs seemed like a mammoth task. Finally, I made a start. I decided to work toward my goal for just 30 minutes each evening. I got into a routine. As I made headway, I grew more motivated because I could access my collection more conveniently. It was a serious improvement on my old method, which stacked CDs in cardboard boxes (and in all the wrong cases).
The takeaway: Starting small and building on little successes can help us achieve great results. A domino chain-reaction experiment from Stephen Morris, a geophysics professor at the University of Toronto, explores this in a powerfully visual way.
6. Create positive associations.
I'm working on a new leadership book and gaining great pleasure from this project. I love the creative process of coming up with an idea and developing the threads. But the editing phase is less glamorous. Fiddling with sentences for hours and searching for a single word that somehow encapsulates what I want to say is almost as torturous as cleaning my juice machine.
Earlier in the process, I couldn't seem to fall into an editing routine. I found all sorts of reasons to avoid wordsmithing. Generally, that meant going for long walks along my local beach. Then, I read about the power of positive association and context in habit-forming. I applied this concept to my book project and solved my editing problem.
I've associated editing with my daily stroll. Every day, I head out for my walk and then edit my writing while I look out at the sea. I'm now editing every afternoon and walking home as the light fades. What used to be a chore has become a highlight of my day.
Key takeaway: We can reinforce habits by associating them with activities or experiences we enjoy.
7. Build the new habit into your regular routine.
When I worked full-time, I made excuses for not reading. I told myself I was too busy. Yet I had a two-hour train commute each day, and I used that time to check email, surf the internet and sleep. One day I made a self-commitment to read during the trip. Incorporating this habit into my schedule was easy and became the first step toward spending more time writing and researching.
In her book "Better than Before," Gretchen Rubin discusses the “strategy of convenience” in habit formation. For example, positioning a recycling bin close to the food surface makes it less likely we'll toss containers in the garbage. I applied this tactic by buying an e-book reader and creating an easily accessible library that was convenient to take on the train.
Key takeaway: Finding ways to integrate a habit into daily rhythms increases our odds of success.
8. Create a quick motivational win.
In the mid-1980s, I worked for a governmental department. There were no office computers. The agency's “mail man” came twice a day to deliver the post via a wire-basket trolley.
Fast-forward to the electronic age and my near-incessant email habit. I checked my inbox as often as 20 times an hour. I decided to stop. I committed to return to the good, old-fashioned method of checking my mail twice a day. At first, I sweated a little because I thought I might be missing important stuff. The habit stuck because of an immediate win: I suddenly had blocks of uninterrupted time. My productivity and quality of work increased and it freed up my schedule so I could coach team members and further develop their skills.
The takeaway: A built-in, upfront bonus can inspire us to maintain new behaviors and lead to even bigger wins.
9. Give yourself a pat on the back.
Every night, I take a "reflection walk." I think about what I achieved during the day and how my actions contributed to my core goals and vision. I congratulate myself on the things that went well, and I forgive myself for my transgressions. I also use the time to deliberate on what I need to achieve the next day to create success and a step forward. Then, I go have a beer.
The takeaway: Celebrating our successes and accepting our mistakes helps us reframe what we need to be even better tomorrow.
10. Create a positive support network.
One hot summer in Europe, I resigned from my job to write a novel and build a leadership-consultancy business. I was working around the clock and enjoying every minute. One of my oldest friends had invited me to stay so I could enjoy an uninterrupted summer. But I left early because my “friend” had grown very negative about the work I was doing. To remind myself to choose more supportive friends in the future, I occasionally reread one email message my former host sent me.
"It seems 'your work' takes precedence above everything," my onetime friend wrote. "What is so important about this 'work?' Are you saving children in Africa or preventing war and disease? I don't think so. You need to take a long, hard look at yourself. I don't know whether therapy or counseling is too late, but locking yourself away with your laptop, working all day on pet dreams that don't (and never will) contribute anything useful to the world, strikes me as living in a fool's paradise."
Key takeaway: We sometimes have to make hard choices if we wish to silence the negative voices. Believing we'll reach our goals is infinitely more difficult without the right people in our inner circles.
Keep the promises you make to yourself.
These are simple personal stories, but there's a strong message. We can influence our behavior in a positive way when we focus on three principles: better understanding ourselves, realizing the context in which we're trying to affect personal change and identifying the nature of how we form new habits. These three drivers are more likely to help us sustain a habit than any theory of magic numbers.