How Long Does It Take To Change Your Life?
What if I told you, you could change your life and be a whole new person in as little as a month?
Sound far-fetched? I imagine it would.
The largely popular concept of ’21 days to form a habit’ is actually a misinterpreted byte from Dr. Maxwell Maltz’s research. Dr. Maltz, a cosmetic surgeon, observed that whenever he performed a procedure on a patient — say, a nose job — it took the patient about 21 days to adjust to seeing their new look. Similarly, patients who had limbs amputated would sense phantom limb and associated pain for about 21 days before their bodies adjusted. His further studies and research led him to the realisation that it took him at least 21 days to form a new habit. He commented upon this observation in the book, Pyscho-Cybernetics, where he mentions, “These, and many other commonly observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.”
Unfortunately, people seem to have skimmed over the ‘minimum of’ part.
So how long does it really take to change your life?
Well, it depends on the change.
Habit formation, or automaticity, happens when an action you take becomes a natural and instinctive move. This could be as simple as drinking a glass of water when you wake up everyday, or as powerful as setting aside a few hundred bucks everyday towards a vacation fund. What I have observed, and what I believe most people will agree to, is that 21 days is the bare minimum you need to bring an activity to automaticity.
When I started the TwitterGetsFitter movement, one of the greatest things I was relying upon to keep it going, was habit formation. Working on one’s fitness is a popular goal — indeed, one that features in nearly every person’s list of New Year resolutions. But the biggest reason fitness attempts in particular tend to die a swift death, is how long it takes to see results. People who drop out usually do so within the first 2 weeks.
It’s important to remember that habit formation happens in stages, and that the quickest way to upset your attempts is to give up. We have evolved into a highly impatient species, and that’s our biggest hurdle when it comes to automaticity.
Here are a few tips to help turn that resolution into a habit:
- Where possible, bring time and/or place into the equation. It is easier to train the brain to repeat an action if it is associated with a particular time or place. For example, if you repeatedly go for a run as soon as you’re back from work, your mind starts to associate entering your home after work as a cue to go running. While you may have an off day now & then, it is more likely that you end up doing what your subconscious is urging you to do.
- Try to form a new habit, or replace an old one. It is significantly easier to train your mind to accept a new habit, than to ditch an old one. Battling a late-night snacking problem? Instead of trying (and possibly failing) at abstaining, try to train yourself to respond differently. So whenever you feel the urge to snack, drink a glass of water instead. Better yet, do 30 jumping jacks!
- Crush the cue. If you can ascertain a certain cue that triggers a negative habit that you’re trying to be rid of, your chances of quashing the habit are considerably higher. Take for instance, an urge to buy a packet of chips as you wait for the train or bus home from work. Once you’ve identified the trigger, it’s easier to anticipate the unwanted habit and prepare yourself for it. Instead, make sure you prepare a small snack box ahead of time (ideally from home) with an assortment of fruit and/or nuts. You still snack, but you’ve battled the unhealthy part of it.
- Allow yourself an off day. While it’s ideal to stick to your endeavours unwaveringly, it is all too normal to slip up once or twice. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Give yourself permission to make mistakes, and devise strategies to get you back on track.
- Embrace a longer timeline. If you’re going to obsess over the 21-day (or however long) deadline, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Understand and consciously accept that it may take longer, sometimes up to 40 or even 60 days. Commit to focusing on the habit, rather than the deadline.
- Get a wingman. Having someone who keeps you motivated and accountable can be a great kick in the pants, especially on days you’re feeling close to quitting. Accountability is one the biggest reasons TwitterGetsFitter has worked as well as it has, as its 200+ participants will agree.
At the end of the day, however, it is important to realise that what matters isn’t how long it takes you to change your life. Your outcome is determined by your commitment to the process, regardless of its duration. Even Aristotle defined excellence as a habit.
You can’t determine whether it’ll take 21 days or 200 until you get moving on Day 1.
This post was originally published on the Kilter blog.