A habit is an action, choice, or decision that you perform on a regular basis. When can you call a new action a habit? That depends. Perhaps when the action reaches automaticity; doing the thing without thinking about it. When it becomes rote.
For example, you automatically begin flossing after brushing. Your mind is elsewhere, perhaps preparing for the upcoming meeting or rethinking yesterday's events.
But what is the amount of time it will take you to create a new desirable habit? The number of days may vary from person to person, the level of difficulty, and many other factors.
What Healthy Habits Are Most Important
The healthy habits you prioritize may differ from the ones I choose to incorporate into my daily routine. With so many ways we all differ, it makes sense that we will prioritize different habits.
As I mentioned in this podcast episode, your family medical history might factor into which habits you incorporate first. For example, if both of your parents have heart disease, you might want to add preventative measures to the top of your priority list.
In addition, genetics play a role, so if you have had genetic testing, you have information that could potentially add years to your healthspan.
How Long Does it Take to Develop a Good Habit?
The idea that it takes 21 days to form a habit comes from a plastic surgeon. In Dr. Maxwell Maltz's 1960 book, Psycho-Cyberneticshe stated that it takes a “minimum” of 21 days for a person to get accustomed to their new look. Over the years, people began to say it takes 21 days to form a habit. (Kind of like the gossip game where the concept changes each time it is repeated.)
The truth is it could take up to a year to form a new habit. There truly is no magic number of times to repeat a healthy habit before it becomes second nature.
It is easier to form a new “good habit” than it is to break an old “bad habit.” (Although, James Clear, in his bestseller, “Atomic Habits” points out there are no good or bad habits, only effective ones.)
Recent studies show that performing your new habit consistently in a shorter time frame with context yields better results. By context, they mean associating the habit with something you already automatically do. (This is also referred to as habit stacking, listen to a podcast about longevity habits here.)
For example, you'd like to drink more water. You can habit stack by planning to fill your water bottle when you fill your coffee cup. Making the statement of association out loud may also help. Your statement would be, “when I fill my coffee cup, I also pour a glass of water.”
This works because you already have a coffee habit, now you're tagging the new desired habit onto the one you already have.
The video I mentioned in the podcast episode can be found here.
Forming New Habits
Cue. Routine. Reward. Repeat. This is a “habit loop” according to Charles Duhigg, in his wildly popular book, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.” He says that once we know how habits work it's easier to fiddle with the gears (make changes that stick.)
In his book, Duhigg explains how they study habits and goes in-depth about how they experiment with rats in mazes, giving them rewards in various places. He explains that habits, whether good or bad, are encoded into the structure of our brains. So a bad habit never goes away. If you quit smoking, that bad habit is still lurking in your brain, just waiting for the right cue and reward to reemerge.
That doesn't mean you can't kick a bad habit (like smoking) it simply means you need to continue your new routine to overpower those old behaviors. This is why so many smokers turn to the new habit of gum chewing.
A habit is formed.
Habit formation is a topic that has been written about in perhaps hundreds of thousands of books. The bottom line is that it isn't super easy to create a new behavior, especially if it isn't something we enjoy or value.
That is why it is so important to first figure out your why. Not just “I want to be healthy.” That is too vague, you need to dig deeper. Why do you want to be healthy? To be around to love on your great-grandchildren? How about more years to make a difference in the world? What do you live for – when you discover the answer to those questions, you'll have your motivation.
Write that down somewhere and keep it where you will see it often. The thing you write down is a crucial key to your habit formation process. Although, willpower alone is usually not enough to help with habit-forming.
In the first days of building a new habit, you'll need to set up reminders, such as a notification on your phone. You can experiment with habit stacking, which is to add a new good habit onto another habit that you've already established.
Focus on More on Building Healthy New Habits Than Breaking Bad Habits
While it is definitely important to break bad habits such as smoking or driving through fast food every day for lunch, it's more important to focus on building healthy habits.
Instead of saying to yourself, “today I will not drive-through for a burger and fries” you might instead choose this statement:
“I'm a health seeker and today I will choose a lunch meal that continues to build up my health.” Every single day you can wake up and say to yourself, I am a health seeker. Habits are all about what you believe to be true about yourself. Simple habits can be formed over time that contribute to self-improvement in the area or areas you are focused on.
Self-help books liked the ones mentioned above may help you increase the odds of incorporating new habits that contribute to better physical and mental health. Choose one method and try it for a few months, or a year. Write things down, evaluate and see where you are in three months, at the end of the year. If you feel like that method of developing a new habit hasn't helped, explore other techniques.
It can be overwhelming to “try out” lots of new habits at one time. Whether it's sit-ups, drinking water, getting up early, or eating better, you can achieve healthy habits over time.