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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

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Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

More About Goals Setting

Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

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