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.
The now-busted 21-day myth is a commonly misinterpreted finding by Dr. Maxwell Maltz. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
As humans, we typically operate on cognitive autopilot. We rarely stop and reflect on how we interpret information and create mental models which replicate our perception of reality.
But when our mental models fail to match reality, we simply ignore reality and operate throughout the day on implicit assumptions. These are not conscious choices. Our mental models allow us a simple way to cope with reality, yet we fail to confront reality when it is different than our mental model. Essentially, we have unknowingly created a ready-made default mechanism. 
So, what can we do?
We must first take time to reflect on our critical thinking skills. By simply understanding how you interpret and perceive information differently than everyone else is a great first step. To truly upgrade your critical thinking skills, you must examine how thoughts arise in your mind and how they got there.
Critical thinking is about asking yourself how you make choices. We can choose to believe something we hear or see; however, why do we choose to believe something we hear or see?
As a Red Team Member in the U.S. Army, I will explain how I upgrade my critical thinking skills using Colonel John Boyd’s OODA Loop as a framework for critical thinking. I will then demonstrate practical ways to upgrade your critical thinking skills for a sharper mind using tools and techniques from the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies (UFMCS) Center for Applied Critical Thinking (also known as the Red Team school) and The Applied Critical Thinking Handbook (also known as The Red Team Handbook).
Critical thinking can be explained in a number of ways. Let’s quickly examine a few definitions:
“Critical thinking is a process, the goal of which is to make reasonable decisions about what to believe and what to do.” – Robert Enis
“Critical thinking means developing an ever better worldview and using it well in all aspects of your life. The essence of critical thinking is questioning and arguing logically.” – Gary Jason
“Critical thinking is searching for hidden assumptions, noticing various facets, unraveling different strands, and evaluating what is most significant. It implies conscious, deliberate inquiry, and especially it implies adopting a skeptical state of mind.” – Sylvan Barnet and Hugo Bedau
To me, critical thinking is as follows:
“Critical thinking is observing the world with an open and skeptical mindset with the goal of exploring all alternatives objectively (as much as possible). It is our ability to orient our mental models to view reality through an emotionless lens seeking the truth by questioning our own assumptions and deconstructing arguments logically. It is our ability to identify gaps and uncover what is missing to improve our quality of decisions. Finally, it is our ability to unravel different strands of significant information through a continuous stream of feedback so that we continuously destroy and create new mental models allowing us to act closer to reality.” – Dr. Jamie Schwandt
Critical Thinking Framework: OODA Loop
I use John Boyd’s OODA Loop as a framework for critical thinking. It is similar to Swarm Intelligence, where we use simple rules to allow the collective intelligence to emerge. The simple rules are Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act.
The OODA Loop is a high-speed decision making and feedback process in four stages: Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. The OODA Loop is a continuous feedback loop where the objective is to go through the loop faster than your opponent.
I use simple rules provided within the OODA Loop to assist me in speeding up my critical and creative thinking abilities. However, do not confuse the word “simple” with “simplistic” as the OODA Loop uses simple rules within a complex system (which is exactly what the OODA Loop is).
The key to the loop is feedback. The OODA Loop is similar to Double-Loop Learning, where the goal is to modify decision-making in light of new experience.
Double-Loop Learning is the first loop uses goals or decision making rules, the second loop enables their modification… hence, double-loop.
Chris Argyris writes about Double-Loop Learning in Teaching Smart People How To Learn,
“A thermostat that automatically turns on the heat whenever the temperature in a room drops below 68 degree is a good example of single-loop learning. A thermostat that could ask why am I set to 68 degree? and then explore whether or not some other temperature might more economically achieve the goal of heating the room would be engaged in double-loop learning.
The overarching guide for my use of the OODA Loop is as follows:
I will talk about this more in the How-To Guide: Tools to Apply the Critical Thinker’s OODA Loop section below.
It’s about seeking truth. Here we should seek to follow a concept introduced by Immanuel Kant as a way of evaluating motivations for actions – called the Categorical Imperative. Kant defines a categorical imperative as an absolute or an unconditional requirement that must be obeyed in all circumstances and is justified as an end in itself. For example, “Act only according to the maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” For more information, visit the Categorical Imperative.
This is essentially solving problems by working backwards. A simple example of this method is working backwards to solve a math problem.
For example, solve the following problem: “I think of a number and add three to it, multiply the result by 2, subtract 4 and divide by 7. The number I end up with is 2. What was the number I first thought of?” To solve, read the problem backwards. You start with: 2 x 7 = 14. Then take 14 + 4 = 18. From there take 18 / 2 = 9. Then take 9 – 3 = 6. Finally, the number you first thought of was 6.
Moreover, Reasoning Backwards can be viewed through the lens of deduction. I prefer deduction over induction and here is why:
An example of Inductive Reasoning is: this raven is black, that raven is black, all ravens are black.
Deductive Reasoning is: All ravens are black, that raven is black, therefore it is black.
We make deductions from laws to see what should happen and then experiment to see if our prediction was right. Think about it this way… to test whether a burner is hot, we must touch the burner first using Inductive Reasoning; however, if we were to use Deductive Reasoning, we would first predict the burner to be hot and would realize there is not need to touch it.
One last benefit of Reasoning Backwards is that it forces our linear and logical mind to catch things we wouldn’t normally catch. For example, read the following sentence:
After reading this sentence, you will realize that the the brain doesn’t recognize a second ‘the’.
Now read the sentence again, this time read it backwards. Did you notice that you missed the second ‘the’?
The UFMCS uses this as the single most important idea to enable critical thinking. For example, prior to taking on an issue, we should first think independently and reflectively, then write down our thoughts (which assists us in shaping and refining them), then share them in a disciplined manner. This takes us from divergence to convergence.
Boyd described a thought experiment in a presentation called Strategic Game of ? and ?. Through the process of Destructive Deduction (analyze and pull apart mental concepts into discrete parts) and Creative Induction (using these elements to form new mental concepts) we can create a new mental model that more closely aligns with reality.
Part 1 of his question:
“Imagine that you are on a ski slope with other skiers…that you are in Florida riding in an outboard motorboat, maybe even towing water-skiers. Imagine that you are riding a bicycle on a nice spring day. Imagine that you are a parent taking your son to a department store and that you notice he is fascinated by the toy tractors or tanks with rubber caterpillar treads.”
“Now imagine that you pull the skis off but you are still on the ski slope. Imagine also that you remove the outboard motor from the motorboat, and you are no longer in Florida. And from the bicycle you remove the handle-bar and discard the rest of the bike. Finally, you take off the rubber treads from the toy tractor or tanks. This leaves only the following separate pieces: skis, outboard motor, handlebars and rubber treads.”
What do you imagine could be created using the remaining parts? A Snowmobile
Let’s now turn our attention to the four simple rules within the OODA Loop.
The Critical Thinker’s OODA Loop: Simple Rules to Guide You
Think of how we use sensors and gather information. In an ant colony, this is where ants shoot pheromones to signal others when they have found food.
Here we are detecting events within our environment and identifying change (or lack thereof). This could also be identified as Locate or Perceive (think swarming tactics or artificial intelligence).
Find out what is really there.
Observe first and gather data.
Identify the uncommon and common things. As Sherlock Holmes famously said, “What is out of common is a guide.” A great video on this point is The most unlikely threat from the hit movie Men in Black – watch the following video:
Begin with a blank and open mind.
Remember that there is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.
Key questions to ask:
What are we being asked?
What do we know?
Key tools to use:
6 Words. This is simply writing a short and precise phrase summarizing your thinking into a set number of words.
Key assumptions check. We all start with assumptions and it is extremely important to be aware of our own. Understanding this will allow us to explain the logic of an argument and expose faulty logic. It will also help us simulate thinking about a problem and uncover hidden links between factors. Let’s examine some key questions to ask here: 1) How much confidence do you have with this assumption?; 2) What explains your confidence with this assumption?; 3) What must exist for this assumption to be valid?; and 4) If this assumption proves wrong, will this change your line of thinking about the issue?
Analysis + Synthesis. By breaking a concept or problem apart (analysis) we develop knowledge; yet, it’s when we piece the parts back together (synthesis) and create something new that we develop understanding or wisdom.
Onion Model. Hofstede’s Onion Model is a great tool to find values at the core. It is a great way to prompt better questions, look at something or someone or some group from multiple perspectives, and expose ignorance.
neXt – Innovative Framework. Professor Ramesh Raskar, head of MIT Media Lab’s Camera Culture Research Group, created an easy-to-use framework for inventing the future – right now. Watch the following video:
Think of a hypothesis like you would when putting a puzzle together, where you are making predictions then testing those predictions.
Devils Advocacy. Here you are trying to prove the opposite and disprove the hypothesis. Essentially, you are trying to prove the limitations.
Alternative Futures Analysis
Analysis of Competing Hypotheses (ACH) (see below)
The Value of Possible. Here is a logical system incorporating elements of language. In this method, we have three truth values: False, True, and Possible. Logical connective rules: True is p, Possible is q, and False has no value. This allows for something to be fuzzy (not clearly black or white… true or false) but could still be true.
Think of testing and retesting a hypothesis.
According to Boyd, actions should be rapid, surprising, ambiguous, and ever changing. This could be identified as Disperse or Learn.
Carry out your decision (or selected action) while the opponent is still observing the last action.
As Sherlock Holmes said, “Nothing clears up a case so much as stating it to another person.”
Develop quick “fly-like” reactions.
Use simple rules to guide your actions or the actions of a group.
Find the desired path. For example, watch how routes on a college campus naturally form. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we allowed these to naturally form then simply pave those locations. For more on this idea, watch the following video Find and Pave the Desired Path:
Key questions to ask:
What did I learn?
What type of feedback did I receive?
What type of feedback am I still receiving (we are continuously receiving feedback)?
What can I do with this new information as my OODA Loop begins again?
The UFMCS provides a powerful framework for deconstructing an argument.
What is the argument? Here the argument = problem (or premise) + reasons + conclusion
Check to make sure the right problem is identified and examine the point of view of the other person.
Search for and ask for clarification of ambiguous words.
Look for value conflicts and check key assumptions. More specifically, look for prescriptive assumptions (statement made on the way things should be) and descriptive assumptions (statement made on the way things are).
Check the evidence provided. Does the person use personal experience, potentially deceptive statistics (use numbers without percentages – percentages without numbers), appeal to authorities, faulty analogies, intuition, etc.
Is there another plausible hypotheses which might explain the situation?
Are there any other conclusions you can draw from the argument?
What implications does accepting the argument pose?
2. The 4 Agreements
Another great way the U.S. Army Red Team community upgrades their critical thinking ability is through the following four agreements:
Don’t make assumptions.
Don’t take anything personal.
Be impeccable with your words.
Always do your best.
Finally, I recommend using the following mnemonic. I created this tool to assist me as I move through the Critical Thinker’s OODA Loop. Additionally, I recommend writing this down on a note-card and keeping a copy with you at all times.
Think like a Scout – the drive to see what’s really there.
In the following video Why you think you’re right-even if you’re wrong, Julia Galef examines the motivation between two mindsets (Scout mindset vs Soldier mindset) and how they shape the way we interpret information:
Galef explains that Scouts are curious and are more likely to feel pleasure when they learn new information. She says it’s like an itch to solve a puzzle. We should strive to develop a Scout Mindset. Let’s examine qualities Scout’s possess:
The Scout’s job is not to attack or defend, but to understand – to go out, map the terrain and identify potential obstacles.
Scout’s are intrigued when they encounter something that contradicts their expectations.
More likely to think it’s virtuous to test your own beliefs.
They do not say someone is weak for simply changing their mind.
They are grounded; meaning their self-worth isn’t tied to how right or wrong they are about an argument.
They are proud (and not ashamed) when they notice they might be wrong about something.
They are intrigued (and not defensive) when they encounter information that contradicts their beliefs.
They yearn not to defend their beliefs, but to see the world as clearly as they possibly can.
Above all, the Scout seeks to know what’s really there.
Find the Dog who isn’t barking.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story Silver Blaze, we are presented with a mystery of the disappearance of a famous racehorse the night prior to a race and the murder of the horse’s trainer. Mike Skotnicki describes the story about The Dog that Didn’t Bark:
“The dog that didn’t bark. What we can learn from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle about using the absence of expected facts.” – Mike Skotnicki
Sherlock Holmes solves the mystery in part by recognizing that no one he spoke to in his investigation remarked that they had heard barking from the watchdog during the night.
Gregory (Scotland Yard detective), “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Sherlock Holmes, “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Gregory, “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Sherlock Holmes, “That was the curious incident.”
The fact that the dog did not bark when we would have expected it to while the horse was stolen led Holmes to the conclusion that the criminal was not a stranger to the dog, but someone the dog recognized; thus, would not cause the dog to bark.
What would have to exist for something to be true?
Here we can use a UFMCS Red Team tool called What If? Analysis. This tool assumes an event has already happened with potential impact (positive or negative) and explains how it might play out. This is a powerful technique for challenging a closed mindset by shifting the focus from whether an event could occur to how it might happen.
Clearly state the conventional line assuming the event has happened, then step back and consider what alternative outcomes are too important to dismiss, even if unlikely.
Select triggering events that allowed the event to happen.
Develop a chain of argumentation.
Reason backwards from the event in concrete ways (specify what must occur at each stage).
Choose one or more plausible pathways.
Develop and monitor a list of indicators or observables for each scenario that would assist in detecting the beginning of the event.
Another technique you can use here is The Reductio ad Absurdum. This is a simple yet powerful tool.
Assume a statement to be true and see what conclusions you can discern from it. If you find you get a contradiction, you know the initial statement is false as contradictions are always false.
It allows you to determine if a statement is false by showing the contradiction.
Here we can use a combination of tools and techniques.
For example, if you have a team or group of people, you could use what’s called a Premortem and/or Postmortem Analysis. This is an application of mental stimulation and is a great tool for Group Think Mitigation. We could use the 5-Why technique after we have asked what happened. We could also use Algorithmic Thinking where we perform an If-And-Then series of questions.
Let’s combine the three and see how this can be used:
Assume an event has happened or after an event has happened – use 5-Why to identify causes as to why this event happened.
Generate a list of reasons for the event with the following simple rules: 1) The more ideas the better; 2) Build on other peoples ideas using them as prompts for your own; 3) Wacky ideas are fine (and sometimes preferred).
Ask a series of If-And-Then questions:
IF an Active Shooter is spotted AND appropriate signals are in place THEN we should be able to act/respond quicker.
This can also be used with Propositional Calculus. For example, “If you are a bird, then you have wings,” could be rephrased as, “You cannot be a bird and not have wings.” It is a proposition using one connective such as: IF-Then. It can then be transformed into an expression using the other connectives “and” and “not” without changing the validity of the statement.
Ask what evidence is not being seen, but would be expected for a hypothesis to be true.
Conduct an Analysis of Competing Hypotheses (ACH). The objective is to identify alternative explanations (hypotheses) and evaluate the evidence that will disconfirm rather than confirm the hypotheses. This is how I reason backwards.
Brainstorm and list all possible hypotheses (no matter how improbable they may seem). List the hypotheses first then the evidence (think deductive reasoning). You can list the evidence first, then the hypotheses if you prefer (think inductive reasoning).
List all significant evidence and arguments relevant to each hypotheses.
Reason backwards by creating a divergent systems diagram with each hypotheses from right to left (to mimic backwards reasoning)
Start to converge by preparing a matrix listing the hypotheses across the top with each piece of evidence down the side.
Determine if each piece of evidence is consistent, inconsistent, or non applicable.
Refine the matrix by reconsidering each hypotheses. Here you can even add new information if applicable.
Focus on disproving each hypotheses rather than proving one. Tally your evidence that are inconsistent and consistent to see which hypotheses are the weakest and strongest (you can also identify this using your systems diagram… +/- for strong and weak connections).
Ask what evidence is not being seen, but would be expected for a given hypotheses to be true. Ask if denial and/or deception is a possibility.
Identify and monitor indicators that would be consistent and inconsistent with each hypotheses.
Where are the Pattern (or location) of bullet holes NOT located?
Statistician Abraham Wald was tasked with helping the Allies decide where to add armor to bombers during World War II. The Allies hoped extra protection would help minimize bomber losses due to enemy anti-aircraft fire. They thought the answer was obvious and the bombers returning from missions showed them where to put the extra armor. However, Wald disagreed. He explained the damage actually revealed the locations that needed the least additional armor. In essence, it’s where the bombers could be hit and still survive the flight home.
This is an example of selection or survivorship bias, where we typically only consider information that’s presented to us and ignore information that is absent, yet might just be significantly relevant. For example, the locations on the bombers without bullet holes might just be the location to reinforce.
Finally, we should be extremely carefully of what we remove from a system or process. We have to be aware of the second and third order effects.
I will leave you with one final video: How Wolves Change Rivers: