What is the secret to forming a healthy habit?
Why is it that some people can create habits quickly, and others not?
How long ‘should’ you persist until a behaviour becomes a habit?
Let’s look at the evidence…
Research by Lally et al. (2009) ‘How are habits formed: Modelling habit information in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology says;
it took participants between 18-254 days to reach 95% automaticity at a new habit
missing one opportunity to perform a behaviour did not affect creating a new habit
the chance of increasing the habit increased when the chosen behaviour was performed in a CONSISTENT way (i.e. a clear routine)
Sounds simple doesn’t it? Well, I decided to put this to the test. I wanted to apply this research to my own lifestyle to find out how long it would take me to improve my own ad hoc running and exercise routine so that they became habitual. I wanted to know this, because in order to be able to help others create habits, I believe I need to have explored it myself.
Here’s how the story goes...
The past 12 months for me have been a period of reconciliation and recovery from the 2 ultra-marathons, a couple of half marathons, handful of 10ks and the odd 5k (you could say it was a busy year). I didn’t feel tired, I felt fitter and healthier than I have ever felt, but my body deserved a rest from the endless miles. I also wanted to focus on some strength training for general health and injury prevention. Oh, and I started my own business, so all in all, I knew 2018 needed be one of transition. But rather than do nothing, I decided I would run as and when I wanted to.
For the first 3-4 months this is exactly what I did, and it was really nice, I just ran when I felt like it. I didn’t miss ‘training’ at all. But slowly I started to feel like I needed more structure. My life is busy which means it’s far too easy for me to give time to other people and things instead of doing what I want to be doing - moving or exercising. I missed the habit of going out at a set time and on a set route and seeing the obvious improvement in my fitness and strength. And so, I decided to implement the 66-day rule. I wanted to see if I, a relatively highly motivated person when it comes to exercise, could take part in some form of moderate physical activity for at least 20 minutes per day every day for 66 days, in the hope/expectation that by the end of the 66 days I would have performed a habit.
By day 21 I would confidently say I had created a consistent routine. By this I mean I was running on specific days of the week and doing either a 20-30-minute walk or weight training at home. By the end of month 2 I was fulfilling my routine consistently – I’d created a HABIT. Was it easy? No. BUT consistency pays and doing even the smallest thing for 20 minutes each day created momentum and belief that I was ‘back in the game’. And you can do this too.
If you’re desperate to make health changes and create new habits but are struggling to do it, maybe there isn’t a problem with you, or the activity you’re choosing?! I really believe it’s because you’re not following a plan or process. Behaviour change won’t happen by itself no matter how much you might want it to. It is much more likely to happen when you’ve got a plan, and a routine, that you consistently implement. Here are some top tips...
Don’t have a set number of days or target in mind. Start everyday as a new day and aim to get your new behaviour done that day.
Make your new lifestyle behaviour achievable and not too restrictive (a 45-minute run is more likely to be sabotaged than a 15-minute run)
Anchor it to something that is already a habit. For example, if you want to get better at preforming press-ups do them before and after brushing your teeth. We brush our teeth at least twice a day because we have been doing that since we were children. It’s always going to be something we do.
Tell significant others that you need 20 mins a day (or how much time you need) – refuse to compromise on this.
Keep a tally/check list – seeing things ticked off is motivating and confidence boosting
Celebrate a streak – reward yourself, you’ve worked hard!
IF you can’t exercise or do the activity that you had planned in your routine (because you get stuck on a train, or the kids are ill) then do something else that is related to that activity for that 20 minutes (maybe stretch, do some body weight exercises or create a meal plan and shopping list for the family). By doing this, you’re still dedicating 20 mins to your health, thus keeping your mindset in the groove doing something health related for the time that you would normally be ‘active’.
Make yourself accountable. I ask all my clients to email me at least once a week so I know how they’re getting on. I do this for two reasons. Firstly, I love hearing how they’re doing and secondly it helps them to know I’m here to encourage and kick up the bum when needed. We all need a good shove in the right direction from time to time!
Lastly, reflect and record why you’re doing what you’re doing. Ask yourself, what are the benefits/positives of doing what you’re doing? Be clear about how is it improving your physical and mental health. By doing this it will keep you intrinsically motivated and coming back for more! Let me know how you get on. Onwards!