By Helen Brandreth, Jan 10 2014 12:03PM
Do you have any idea how long it takes to develop or break a new habit? What’s your best guess – 14, 21 or 28 days?
Decades ago, some research carried out by a well respected plastic surgeon claimed that it took 21 days for his patients to adjust to the loss of a limb. Therefore, whilst a drastic form of research, he assumed this must be the length of time is takes to change a habit.
A more recent study by a University College London psychologist offers an alternative theory.
Patients were trying to learn new habits, such as eating fruit daily or going jogging. Results confirmed that it took a lengthy 66 days before the new behaviour became automatic, with a substantial failure rate. Individual changes ranged from18 and 245 days before any changes stuck. Naturally, it was found that some habits (such as smoking or drinking less) are far more difficult to change than others.
Anne, a client at Physiotherapy 4 Life, teaches English to overseas students. When we discussing how she wanted to introduce regular exercise into her weekly routine, she explained how she sets her students a series of challenges, starting with easy ones that become more challenging as time goes on. I liked her ideas and thought it might be a useful one to share, whilst encouraging her to ‘take her own medicine” and follow the same process.
For example, for a 7-day challenge, Anne challenges her students to read an article in English every day or watch television for 30 minutes. She always starts with something small and achievable to keep everyone motivated. After reviewing the ‘easy’ successes, the habits to develop become progressively more challenging. Next, she may set them a 30-day challenge, where students choose between 3 and 5 activities that they will do regularly, either daily, weekly or once/month. Again, reviews show how successful (or not) the habits were to develop.
It started me thinking that everyone could benefit from a similar routine. Perhaps, you could aim to walk without stopping for 15 minutes each day for one week? Or, you might set yourself a habit to eat two pieces of fruit every day for 30 days. It doesn’t need to be difficult or expensive, just something that fits easily into your life that brings health and fitness benefits.
Another myth is that you can’t miss a day when trying to adjust to a new habit. This is truly unhelpful and will make it harder for you to re-start if you “fall off the wagon”. So, forget about this and don’t give up! It really doesn’t matter if you have a weak moment and break your habit. Just pick yourself up and start again the next day. Remember that habits are meant to be difficult to change.
Diet and fitness articles at this time of year cling to the 7 or 28 day “miracle fix” because our self-help culture demands quick success. Don’t be fooled, habits are difficult to change and our brains are designed to take short cuts designed to make many habits automatic.
Have you ever decided to stop eating chocolate then eaten a whole bar? We keep doing something even though we want to stop. Does that sound familiar? It does to me too.
What’s required isn’t a drastic change, but finding an alternative way to achieve the results you want. So, why not start small? Set yourself a 7-day challenge but don’t beat yourself up if you fail. Just dust yourself off and start again. Once you’ve succeeded with a 7-day version, challenge yourself to something longer or more difficult. Remember, as babies, we learned our skills a little at a time. Changing habits as an adult can be as successful if we follow the same format.
So, what’s your challenge for the next 7 or, if you’re feeling brave, 30 days? If you dare, please share it with me and I’ll encourage you to stay on course. Good luck!