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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

How to Be Happy: Why Pursuing Happiness Will Make You Unhappy How Your Attitude Determines Your Success How to Ask for Help When You Need It Most How Much Do You Need to Give Up to Start Over? Is It Really Better to Step Out of Your Comfort Zone?

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Last Updated on March 21, 2019

11 Important Things to Remember When Changing Habits

11 Important Things to Remember When Changing Habits

Most gurus talk about habits in a way that doesn’t help you:

You need to push yourself more. You can’t be lazy. You need to wake up at 5 am. You need more motivation. You can never fail…blah blah “insert more gibberish here.”

But let me share with you the unconventional truths I found out:

To build and change habits, you don’t need motivation or wake up at 5 am. Heck, you can fail multiple times, be lazy, have no motivation and still pull it off with ease.

It’s quite simple and easy to do, especially with the following list I’m going to show to you. But remember, Jim Rohn used to say,

“What is simple and easy to do is also simple and easy not to do.”

The important things to remember when changing your habits are both simple and easy, just don’t think that they don’t make any difference because they do.

In fact, they are the only things that make a difference.

Let’s see what those small things are, shall we?

1. Start Small

The biggest mistake I see people doing with habits is by going big. You don’t go big…ever. You start small with your habits.

Want to grow a book reading habit? Don’t start reading a book a day. Start with 10 pages a day.

Want to become a writer? Don’t start writing 10,000 words a day. Start with 300 words.

Want to lose weight? Don’t stop eating ice cream. Eat one less ball of it.

Whatever it is, you need to start small. Starting big always leads to failure. It has to, because it’s not sustainable.

Start small. How small? The amount needs to be in your comfort zone. So if you think that reading 20 pages of a book is a bit too much, start with 10 or 5.

It needs to appear easy and be easy to do.

Do less today to do more in a year.

2. Stay Small

There is a notion of Kaizen which means continuous improvement. They use this notion in habits where they tell you to start with reading 1 page of a book a day and then gradually increase the amount you do over time.

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But the problem with this approach is the end line — where the “improvement” stops.

If I go from reading 1 page of a book a day and gradually reach 75 and 100, when do I stop? When I reach 1 book a day? That is just absurd.

When you start a habit, stay at it in the intensity you have decided. Don’t push yourself for more.

I started reading 20 pages of a book a day. It’s been more than 2 years now and I’ve read 101 books in that period. There is no way I will increase the number in the future.

Why?

Because reading 40 to 50 books a year is enough.

The same thing applies to every other habit out there.

Pick a (small) number and stay at it.

3. Bad Days Are 100 Percent Occurrence

No matter how great you are, you will have bad days where you won’t do your habit. Period.

There is no way of going around this. So it’s better to prepare yourself for when that happens instead of thinking that it won’t ever happen.

What I do when I miss a day of my habit(s) is that I try to bounce back the next day while trying to do habits for both of those days.

Example for that is if I read 20 pages of a book a day and I miss a day, the next day I will have to read 40 pages of a book. If I miss writing 500 words, the next day I need to write 1000.

This is a really important point we will discuss later on rewards and punishments.

This is how I prepare for the bad days when I skip my habit(s) and it’s a model you should take as well.

4. Those Who Track It, Hack It

When you track an activity, you can objectively tell what you did in the past days, weeks, months, and years. If you don’t track, you will for sure forget everything you did.

There are many different ways you can track your activities today, from Habitica to a simple Excel sheet that I use, to even a Whatsapp Tracker.

Peter Drucker said,

“What you track is what you do.”

So track it to do it — it really helps.

But tracking is accompanied by one more easy activity — measuring.

5. Measure Once, Do Twice

Peter Drucker also said,

“What you measure is what you improve.”

So alongside my tracker, I have numbers with which I measure doses of daily activities:

For reading, it’s 20 pages.
For writing, it’s 500 words.
For the gym, it’s 1 (I went) or 0 (didn’t go).
For budgeting, it’s writing down the incomes and expenses.

Tracking and measuring go hand in hand, they take less than 20 seconds a day but they create so much momentum that it’s unbelievable.

6. All Days Make a Difference

Will one day in the gym make you fit? It won’t.

Will two? They won’t.

Will three? They won’t.

Which means that a single gym session won’t make you fit. But after 100 gym sessions, you will look and feel fit.

What happened? Which one made you fit?

The answer to this (Sorites paradox)[1] is that no single gym session made you fit, they all did.

No single day makes a difference, but when combined, they all do. So trust the process and keep on going (small).

7. They Are Never Fully Automated

Gurus tell you that habits become automatic. And yes, some of them do, like showering a certain way of brushing your teeth.

But some habits don’t become automatic, they become a lifestyle.

What I mean by that is that you won’t automatically “wake up” in the gym and wonder how you got there.

It will just become a part of your lifestyle.

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The difference is that you do the first one automatically, without conscious thought, while the other is a part of how you live your life.

It’s not automatic, but it’s a decision you don’t ponder on or think about — you simply do it.

It will become easy at a certain point, but they will never become fully automated.

8. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

Marshall Goldsmith has a great book with the same title to it. The phrase means that sometimes, you will need to ditch certain habits to make room for other ones which will bring you to the next step.

Don’t be afraid to evolve your habits when you sense that they don’t bring you where you want to go.

When I started reading, it was about reading business and tactic books. But two years into it, I switched to philosophy books which don’t teach me anything “applicable,” but instead teach me how to think.

The most important ability of the 21st century is the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn. The strongest tree is the willow tree – not because it has the strongest root or biggest trunk, but because it is flexible enough to endure and sustain anything.

Be like a willow, adapting to the new ways of doing things.

9. Set a Goal and Then Forget It

The most successful of us know what they want to achieve, but they don’t focus on it.

Sounds paradoxical? You’re right, it does. But here is the logic behind it.

You need to have a goal of doing something – “I want to become a healthy individual” – and then, you need to reverse engineer how to get there with your habits- “I will go to the gym four times a week.”

But once you have your goal, you need to “forget” about it and only focus on the process. Because you are working on the process of becoming healthy and it’s always in the making. You will only be as healthy as you take care of your body.

So you have a goal which isn’t static but keeps on moving.

If you went to the gym 150 times year and you hit your goal, what would you do then? You would stop going to the gym.

This is why goal-oriented people experience yo-yo effect[2] and why process-oriented people don’t.

The difference between process-oriented and goal-oriented people is that the first focus on daily actions while others only focus on the reward at the finish line.

Set a goal but then forget about it and reap massive awards.

10. Punish Yourself

Last two sections are pure Pavlovian – you need to punish bad behavior and reward good behavior. You are the only person who decides what is good and what is bad for you, but when you do, you need to rigorously follow that.

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I’ve told you in point #3 about bad days and how after one occurs, I do double the work on the next day. That is one of my forms of punishments.

It’s the need to tell your brain that certain behaviors are unacceptable and that they lead to bad outcomes. That’s what punishments are for.

You want to tell your brain that there are real consequences to missing your daily habits.[3]

No favorite food to eat or favorite show to watch or going to the cinema for a new Marvel movie- none, zero, zilch.

The brain will remember these bad feelings and will try to avoid the behaviors that led to them as much as possible.

But don’t forget the other side of the same coin.

11. Reward Yourself

When you follow and execute on your plan, reward yourself. It’s how the brain knows that you did something good.

Whenever I finish one of my habits for the day, I open my tracker (who am I kidding, I always keep it open on my desktop) and fill it with a number. As soon as I finish reading 20 pages of a book a day (or a bit more), I open the tracker and write the number down.

The cell becomes green and gives me an instant boost of endorphin – a great success for the day. Then, it becomes all about not breaking the chain and having as many green fields as possible.

After 100 days, I crunch some numbers and see how I did.

If I have less than 10 cheat days, I reward myself with a great meal in a restaurant. You can create your own rewards and they can be daily, weekly, monthly or any arbitrary time table that you create.

Primoz Bozic, a productivity coach, has gold, silver, and bronze medals as his reward system.[4]

If you’re having problems creating a system which works for you, contact me via email and we can discuss specifics.

In the End, It Matters

What you do matters not only to you but to the people around you.

When you increase the quality of your life, you indirectly increase the quality of life of people around you. And sometimes, that is all the “motivation” we need to start.

And that’s the best quote for the end of this article:

“Motivation gets you started, but habits keep you going.”

Keep going.

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More Resources to Help You Build Habits

Featured photo credit: Anete Lūsiņa via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Sorites paradox
[2] Muscle Zone: What causes yo-yo effect and how to avoid it?
[3] Growth Habits: 5 Missteps That Cause You To Quit Building A Habit
[4] Primoz Bozic: The Lean Review: How to Plan Your 2019 in 20 Minutes

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