From a step to a Stride
Our daily habits take up a chunk of our lives. What do we do about it?
by MAHENDRA BHUJEL.
A quick internet search on Google will probably give you the magic number of '21 days'. But why 3 weeks? Apparently, Dr Maxwell Martz, a plastic surgeon in the 1960s observed that it took 21 days for amputees to get used to the loss of a limb. It took them that long to not feel any phantom sensations. He argued that new connections in the brain are made during that period. Thus if the brain is bombarded with new instructions to follow for 21 consecutive days, neural connections are made and the brain is 'rewired' and Voilą! You have acquired a new habit!
Now why doesn't that sound convincing? Firstly, it was just an observation not backed up by any facts. Secondly there is ample hard scientific evidence that 21 days is simply too short. For instance, Phillippa Lally and her colleagues at the University College, London recruited 96 volunteers and instructed them to choose an eating, drinking or activity behaviour to carry out daily in the same context for 12 weeks. They found out that on average, it was after 66 days that the practise of the behaviour became automated. It took anywhere from 18 to 254 days to feel that the action could be done without thinking.
This implies that it takes two WHOLE months of daily dedication to form the desired habit. Of course this is a generalisation derived from a small group of volunteers. No two persons' brains are wired the same way.
Experience also plays a major part in forming a new habit. A previously failed attempt could be detrimental to future efforts or could serve as a lesson. The kind of change a person seeks could be vastly different too. For instance acquiring a habit of not skipping breakfast or flossing your teeth every night seems to be trivial compared to running for 15 minutes every day for two months!
More importantly I think the crucial question to ask is "Why do I want to acquire a new habit?" without thinking about how long it is going to take initially. "For fun" was the answer from Matt Cutts, an engineer at Google who wrote a book in 30 days. He wrote 1667 words each day and by the end of the month, he had a novel. In his TED talk he mentions that when he made small sustainable changes, things that he could keep doing, they were more likely to stick. This could be an answer to the "How" aspect of the question.
The mistake people do is to dive into the big problem they want to solve and go 'all out' or go 'cold turkey'. It might work for some but for the majority a slow yet sustained effort seems to work. Personally I have felt the amazing benefits of a daily 10 minute meditation over two weeks. If you wanted to form a habit of exercising you wouldn't go and attempt to run a mile on the first day. Ultimately it's about having a clear cut goal or an aim towards forming a habit. That goal should not be colossal or excruciatingly demanding. It should be realistic and as long as you stick to it assuming you're in the right frame of mind and the right environment (imagine trying to quit cigarettes when you constantly find yourself in the company of smokers) for the action, you are well on your way- regardless of how long it takes.
It is just as important to be wary of the problem of backsliding. Just because you have acquired a habit does not mean it cannot be undone. Take the case of a smoker who has quit for years and one night decides to spark-up and suddenly he is back to smoking 8 cigarettes a day. Or that familiar case of waking up early at 6 am every day until you fail to sleep early one night and the whole routine is disturbed.
Also trying to "Wake up at 7am everyday while at the same time stop eating junk food and exercising every evening" sounds like a commendable change. Yet it is most likely doomed to fail. Why? You are trying to change a lot at once. It should be a simple change which would snowball into a profound habit. Start off by laying off the junk food.
If you want to write about your new habit, write. You could talk about it with friends. Support is always welcome. Yet I think you must ultimately enjoy it. Enjoy being a part of the change and see through it. I heard a colleague say "A change is as good as a holiday" once. Once you acquire a habit, no matter how simple, move on to something different. It is that sense of completion having acquired something which can drive couch potatoes to conquer mountains.