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Last Updated on September 28, 2017

It Is Not About How Fast You Can Build A Habit, It Is What You Build That Matters

It Is Not About How Fast You Can Build A Habit, It Is What You Build That Matters

It seems like many of us are obsessed with figuring out how long it takes to turn over a new leaf these days. There’s a popular myth that 21 days is the magic time frame for forming a new habit.[1]

The now-busted 21-day myth is a commonly misinterpreted finding by Dr. Maxwell Maltz.[2] When he conducted rhinoplasty on his patients, he noticed that it took them a minimum of 21 days to get used to looking at their new faces. He also noted that it took him about three weeks to adopt a new habit.[3]

People took the idea of being able to establish a new habit in 21 days and ran with it, but endless perpetuation of an idea on the internet and in pop culture doesn’t make it true. A 2010 study by UCL found that there was a lot more variation in how long it took participants to form a habit, but habit-formation takes about 66 days on average.[4]

Now we know what the research says. Our success in setting up new routines and habits starts with laying the proper groundwork. What if I told you that building a new habit can happen in as little as 3 days?

Where there’s a will, there’s a way

Unlike trying to learn a new skill, new habits form through determination. Skill building depends on our aptitude and experience. If we have an efficient learning framework, then we’ll master new things quickly, but if we don’t, it can take a long time.

For example, people trying to learn new languages do so at different rates. A five-year old will pick up a new language faster than an 85-year old because young brains are primed for language acquisition. Imagine that the person is trying to learn Spanish, but they grew up reading Latin. Since Latin is the basis for all Romance languages, a person who knows Latin is going to learn Spanish much more quickly than someone with no experience with the language.

Forming a new habit has very little to do with all this baggage that we consider when we’re acquiring new skills. Making something a habit comes down to how badly we want it. You already have the end-result in your mind when you set up new patterns and routines. All you need to do is create an environment to support yourself and commit to executing that vision.

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You don’t have to learn a new skill to quit smoking. You start by committing to quitting. Then, you change your environment. You throw out all the cigarettes hiding in your house and car, and you stop putting yourself in situations where you’ll be enticed by others’ smoking habits.

Going to the gym is the same. Anyone can start working out. You don’t have to be “good at it” or an expert on all the equipment, but you do have to show up to form the habit. You have to create a situation in which going to the gym is preferable to what you used to do.

Try not to do too much at a time

You may be looking at yourself right now and thinking, “I need to go to the gym five days per week, quit smoking, stop eating junk food, and get organized.” Striving for self-improvement is wonderful, but if you try to do all of those things at once, you are bound to fail.

Habit building requires a lot of determination. For each bad habit that you replace with a good habit, you will face challenges. It is best to start small so that you won’t become to exhausted or discouraged. Yes, you’ll have to work hard, but you can also “work smart.”

Some good habits provide the groundwork for you to adopt other habits. This can lead you to be able to make changes more quickly than the 66 days it takes the average person to make a shift. You’ll be able to change your behavior more quickly if you start with these foundational habits and scaffold your approach to taking on bigger challenges.

Start doing these 7 things to make it easier to form good habits

1. Institute “No Social Media Day”

Social media is an incredible tool, but it can also be a real time-sink. The average person is now spending up to two hours per day on social media.[5] Most of us don’t realize we’re losing so much time. Think of what you could do with an extra 60 hours per month.

Not only does the mindless scrolling soak up valuable hours of our time, but it can also lead to addictive behaviors. When we check our phones or social media accounts, responses and reactions to our posts can trigger a release of dopamine. That’s why so many people can’t step away from their phone or computer–they are hooked.

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Fear of missing out (FOMO) can also add unnecessary stress to our lives. We feel like if we don’t have our finger on the pulse of the rest of the world at all times, we’ll be left behind. It simply isn’t true.

If you know you’re losing time or getting stressed because of a FOMO, try to unplug for at least one day per week. This can help you to re-center and adjust your focus toward the important things in life.

2. Make speed reading part of your day

Speed reading enables you to consume more written material in less time. You’ll have the opportunity to gain knowledge, which is essential in this fast-paced world. Speed reading can help you pick up main ideas more quickly than the average reader.

A speed reader can read about 1,500 words per minute, while the average adult can only read about 300 words per minute.[6] A speed reader can read in 50 minutes what takes the average adult 5.5 hours.

Reading faster trains you to use structural and organizational cues to find the information you need quickly. It allows you to weed through superfluous material to get to the heart of what you need to know.

3. Write down 10 random thoughts per day

You have more amazing ideas than you realize, but if you don’t have a system for taking note of these things, they can fly out of your head as quickly as you come up with them.

Write down at least ten of these thoughts every day. This action gives you more space to think about other things, and you can give yourself time to revisit these ideas later. You may not be able to find a connection between that random thought you had in the shower and your work, but if you write it down, it may provide new insight for you later.

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Connecting random thoughts and building from these kernels of ideas can lead you to be more productive and creative.

4. Listen to a new album at least once a week

It’s easy to play the same playlist over and over. There’s nothing wrong with liking a certain playlist, but branching out is good for you. By expanding your horizons, you can find new things that you like. You are also subconsciously training your brain to accept new things when you allow an unfamiliar song to play.

Compared to some of the other habits you might be trying to form, this one is as simple as switching to a new radio station. If you don’t like what you hear, you just move on to the next song.

5. Go for a 30-minute walk every day

It’s way too easy to be sedentary. After a long day at work, it might be tempting to forgo exercise for time in front of the TV.

Going for a nice stroll can be a refreshing experience. Walking improves your circulation, and we do need around 10 minutes of sun exposure (without sunscreen) to get enough Vitamin D.[7] If you plan to apply sunscreen, have a darker complexion, or cover up, thirty minutes is a reasonable amount of time to be out.

You may not have the time or energy to spend several hours every day at the gym, but walking around the park during your lunch break or taking a stroll through the neighborhood can work wonders for your health. If your work day involves sitting at a desk for most of the time, then incorporating movement into your routine is even more important. The effects of sitting all day can be as detrimental to your health as smoking.[8]

6. Wake up an hour early and stretch

For some of us, waking up early can seem like torture, but this is only because we are in the habit of sleeping in. Waking up early boosts your productivity, and it can start your day off on the right foot. Instead of panicking as you wolf down a bagel and run out the door, you can relax, eat a decent breakfast, and center yourself for the day.

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The morning is a great time to get things done because there are fewer distractions. Michelle Obama and Apple CEO, Tim Cook, are just a few among the star-studded cast of early-risers.[9] Successful people use the morning hours to spend time preparing for their day by catching up on reading, exercising, or spending time with other early-risers in their families.

Nothing can cut into productivity like pain, and stretching first thing in the morning can prevent muscle soreness.[10] It also improves your posture and circulation, which can leave you feeling more alert and energized throughout the day.

If the idea of waking up an hour early sounds grueling, remember that you can break this down into smaller steps. Instead of getting up an hour early, try getting up 15 minutes earlier than usual. You can always set your wake-up time back by another 15 or 30-minute increment when you have acclimated.

7. Meditate for 10 minutes every day

With society’s rapid-fire pace and unrealistic expectations, it seems like we are constantly under pressure to do more things, and to do them better and faster than ever before. It’s nearly impossible to be the perfect employee, spouse, parent, or friend by today’s standards.

Sometimes, we just need to have a few minutes to ourselves. Taking 5 to 10 minutes to sit, ground ourselves in the present moment, and relax can make all the difference in how we approach our day. Meditation can settle our thoughts and remind us of what is most important.

Meditation is also one of the few activities that research has consistently said is beneficial for us.[11] It relieves stress, which can cause a myriad of other serious health problems. If you dedicate yourself to a regular mediation practice, the habit will actually improve your brain health.[12]

Small changes lead to great gains

There’s no doubt that adopting good habits can help you live a longer, happier, healthier, and more fulfilling life. Don’t be afraid to start small and build a foundation on which larger changes can rest. Remember why you want to make a change, and never stop striving to be the greatest version of yourself.

Reference

More by this author

Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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Forget Learning How to Multitask: Boosts Productivity 10X More with Focus

Forget Learning How to Multitask: Boosts Productivity 10X More with Focus

There’s a dark side to the conveniences of the Digital Age. With smartphones that function like handheld computers, it has become increasingly difficult to leave our work behind. Sometimes it seems like we’re expected to be accessible 24/7.

How often are you ever focused on just one thing? Most of us try to meet these demands by multi-tasking.

Many of us have bought into the myth that we can achieve more through multi-tasking. In this article, I’ll show you how you can accomplish more work in less time. Spoiler alert: multi-tasking is not the answer.

Why is multitasking a myth?

The term “multi-tasking” was originally used to describe how microprocessors in computers work. Machines multitask, but people cannot.

Despite our inability to simultaneously perform two tasks at once, many people believe they are excellent multi-taskers.

You can probably imagine plenty of times when you do several things at once. Maybe you talk on the phone while you’re cooking or respond to emails during your commute.

Consider the amount of attention that each of these tasks requires. Chances are, at least one of the two tasks in question is simple enough to be carried out on autopilot.

We’re okay at simultaneously performing simple tasks, but what if you were trying to perform two complex tasks? Can you really work on your presentation and watch a movie at the same time? It can be fun to try to watch TV while you work, but you may be unintentionally making your work more difficult and time-consuming.

Your brain on multi-tasking

Your brain wasn’t designed to multi-tasking. To compensate, it will switch from task to task. Your focus turns to whatever task seems more urgent. The other task falls into the background until you realize you’ve been neglecting it.

When you’re bouncing back and forth like this, an area of the brain known as Broadmann’s Area 10 activates. Located in your fronto-polar prefrontal cortex at the very front of the brain, this area controls your ability to shift focus. People who think they are excellent multitaskers are really just putting Broadmann’s Area 10 to work.

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But I can juggle multiple tasks!

You are capable of taking in information with your eyes while doing other things efficiently. Scientifically speaking, making use of your vision is the only thing you can truly do while doing something else.

For everything else, you’re serial tasking. This constant refocusing can be exhausting, and it prevents us from giving our work the deep attention it deserves.

Think about how much longer it takes to do something when you have to keep reminding yourself to focus.

Why multitasking is failing you

Multitasking does more bad than good to your productivity, here’re 4 reasons why you should stop multitasking:

Multitasking wastes your time.

You lose time when you interrupt yourself. People lose an average of 2.1 hours per day getting themselves back on track when they switch between tasks.

In fact, some studies suggest that doing multiple things at once decreases your productivity by as much as 40%. That’s a significant loss in efficiency. You wouldn’t want your surgeon to be 40% less productive while you’re on the operating table, would you?

It makes you dumber.

A distracted brain performs a full 10 IQ points lower than a focused brain. You’ll also be more forgetful, slower at completing tasks, and more likely to make mistakes.

You’ll have to work harder to fix your mistakes. If you miss an important detail, you could risk injury or fail to complete the task properly.

This is an emotional response.

There’s so much data suggesting that multitasking is ineffective but people insist that they can multitask.

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Feeling productive fulfills an emotional need. We want to feel like we’re accomplishing something. Why accomplish just one item on the to-do list when you can check off two or three?

It’ll wear you out.

When you’re jumping from task to task, it can feel invigorating for a little while. Over time, this needs to fill every second with more and more work leads to burn out.

We’re simply not built to multitask, so when we try, the effect can be exhausting. This destroys your productivity and your motivation.

How to stop multitasking and work productively

Flitting back and forth between tasks feels second-nature after a while. This is in part because Broadmann’s Area 10 becomes better at serial tasking through time.

In addition to changing how the brain works, this serial tasking behavior can quickly turn into a habit.

Just like any bad habit, you’ll need to recognize that you need to make a change first. Luckily, there are a few simple things you can do to adjust to a lifestyle of productive mono-tasking:

1. Consciously change gears

Instead of trying to work on two distinct tasks at once, consider setting up a system to remind you when to change focus. This technique worked for Jerry Linenger, an American astronaut onboard the space station, Mir.

As an astronaut, he had many things to take care of every day. He set alarms for himself on a few watches. When a particular watch sounded, he knew it was time to switch tasks. This enabled him to be 100% in tune with what he was doing at any given moment.

This strategy is effective because the alarm served as his reminder for what was to come next. Linenger’s intuition about setting reminders falls in line with research conducted by Paul Burgess of University College, London on multitasking.

2. Manage multiple tasks without multitasking

Raj Dash of Performancing.com has an effective strategy for balancing multiple projects without multitasking. He suggests taking 15 minutes to acquaint yourself with a new project before moving on to other work. Revisit the project later and do about thirty minutes on research and brainstorming.

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Allow a few days to pass before knocking out the project in question. While you were actively work on other projects, your brain continues to problem solve-in the background.

This method works because it gives us the opportunity to work on several projects without allowing them to compete for your attention.

3. Set aside distractions

Your smartphone, your inbox and the open tabs on your computer are all open invitations for distraction. Give yourself time each day when you silence your notifications, close your inbox and remove unnecessary tabs from your desktop.

If you want to focus, you can’t give anything else an opportunity to invade your mental space.

Emails can be particularly invasive because they often have an unnecessary sense of urgency associated with them. Some work cultures stress the importance of prompt responses to these messages, but we can’t treat every situation like an emergency.

Designate certain times in your day for checking and responding to emails to avoid compulsive checking.

4. Take care of yourself

We often blame electronics for pulling us from our work, but sometimes our physical body forces us into a state of serial tasking. If you’re hungry while you’re trying to work, your attention will flip between your hunger and your work until you take care of your physical needs.

Try to take all your bio-breaks before you sit down for an uninterrupted stint of work.

In addition, you’ll also want to be sure you’re attending to your health in a broader sense. Getting enough exercise, practicing mindfulness and incorporating regular breaks into your day will keep you from being tempted by distractions.

5. Take a break

People are more likely to head to YouTube or check their social media when they need a break. Instead of trying to work and watch a mindless video at the same time, give yourself times when you’re allowed to enjoy your distracting activity of choice.

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Limit how much time you’ll spend on this break so that your guilt-free distraction time doesn’t turn into hours of wasted time.

6. Make technology your ally

Scientists are beginning to discover the detrimental effects of chronic serial tasking on our brains. Some companies are developing programs to curb this desire to multitask.

Apps like Forest turn staying focused into a game. Extensions like RescueTime help you track your online habits so that you can be more aware of how you spend your time.

The key to productivity: Focus

Multitasking is not the key to productivity. It’s far better to schedule time to focus on each task than it is to try to do everything at once.

Make use of the methods outlined above and prepare to be more effective and less exhausted in the process.

If you want to learn more about how to focus, don’t miss my other article:

How to Focus and Maximize Your Productivity (the Definitive Guide)

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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