“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is therefore not an act but a habit.” – Aristotle
Ever heard of the phrase “it takes 21 days to build a habit”? The saying comes from the observations of Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon in the 1950s, who noticed that his patients took about 21 days to get used to seeing their new faces. This was observed even among amputees who felt like they still had a phantom limb until about 21 days.
In this great blog post by James Clear, he explains how we missed a key point in Dr. Maltz’s observations. When Maltz wrote about his experiences, he explained that, “These, and many other commonly observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.”
Note the minimum of about 21 days. According to further research cited in Clear’s article, the true number of days it takes to establish a habit is between 18 days to 254 days. A much wider range than the 21 days. Depending on the complexity of the new habit and how adept we are at incorporating it into our lives, it could be as short as 3 weeks or up to almost 9 months to establish a new habit.
In order to build habits that hold up even during the busiest times of our lives, the implementation of the habit development must be given proper thought and attention. Here are three principles I have around building resilient habits based on some of the successful habit development that I’ve achieved.
1. Expend minimal energy
The key to making habits stick is to make it as easy as possible to start. If the initial hurdle to start the habit is too high, you’ll be stopped in your tracks before you can even begin. So how do you go about making it easier to start? Here are a few examples from my life.
Every morning I do a 7-Minute workout. The workout is usually a high-intensity workout composed of a variety of 30-second exercises. In my bedroom, I have a yoga mat setup and ready to go. In order to expend minimal energy to get started, I don’t put the mat and towel away after the workout. I just keep it there. So when it’s time every morning for me to workout, I don’t need to pull out the yoga mat and drape a towel over it. It’s there and I can get started. No excuses or added energy to pull out the mat and towel.
Here’s another example. I’ve recently started to add a dash of pink Himalayan salt into a glass of water to support my adrenals in the morning. Instead of having to remember that I need to do this everyday, I just put out the salt and a glass out on the stove top the night before so I see it first thing in the morning. No need to use my memory or my willpower. It’s there and ready to go. Lowering the bar again for better adoption.
There are many ways that you can lower the bar for your specific habit. If you’re planning on going to the gym every morning, put your workout clothes out on your dresser the night before. If you want to stop drinking sugary drinks, throw out any that you might have in your fridge and replace them with sparkling water. Make it as easy as possible for you to start your habit. More than likely, once you start the first step of the habit, you’ll will yourself to continue the momentum.
Once the habit is ingrained in your routine you don’t necessarily have to keep the bar lowered. At some point you want the habit to be automatic – which is the whole point with habits! But exercise caution with eliminating the cues too early – it’s too easy for the brain to go back to the laziest route if the habit isn’t ingrained yet.
2. Visualize your daily progress
One of the most important ways to keep yourself motivated to develop your habit is to visualize your progress. Visualizing your progress provides motivation everyday to complete the habit and build momentum. Visualization can be done by printing out a blank calendar of the month and putting an “X” on every day you complete the habit. My favourite tool to visualize my progress is the Hustle Calendar which makes it easy to see the entire year with one look.
Everyday that I complete my daily habit I get the pleasure of marking a big red “X” on the day. The calendar helps keep me motivated to keep the streak alive and build upon my successful habit. It also draws out some trends I see with my habit. For example, I tend to notice my success rate takes a dip when I’m on the road. This helps me strategize on how I can incorporate my habit even on the road. The more data that you collect on your behaviour, the better you’ll be able to take action to improve upon it.
3. Opt for baby steps
This might be the simplest yet most important advice I have around developing a habit. We often get excited about starting a habit – going to the gym three times a week or meditating for 20 minutes everyday – that we forget to remember it’s a marathon and not a sprint.
The typical scenario is that we show great consistency over the course of the first few weeks of the new habit and then life happens. Something happens at work or family that throws you off your new rhythm. By the time you go back to the habit, it feels a lot harder to get back the momentum and eventually you get down on yourself for not being able to stick to it. It’s something I’ve had to deal with many times and it’s highly discouraging.
Developing good habits isn’t easy and being patient with the process and gentle with yourself is extremely important. Imagine planting a seed. You don’t want to overwhelm the seed initially with too much water. You want to let it grow at its own pace. You also can’t see the progress until the plant has emerged from the soil. Habit development is the same way. Be gentle to start, set a lower bar, make it easier for you to continue to build the habit. The reward will be a more well-established habit that is more resilient when “life happens”.
“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.” – Vincent Van Gogh
According to Charles Duhigg and his book, The Power of Habit, about 40-45% of our daily decisions aren’t actually decisions they’re habits. Fourty to fourty-five percent! If we don’t take control of our daily habits, we’re essentially letting half of our day run in autopilot rather than consciously doing what’s most beneficial to us. So if you’re working on incorporating a new habit into your life (and ideally just try to work on one at a time) make sure you’re reviewing the three tips:
- Expend minimal energy
- Visualize your daily progress
- Opt for baby steps
There are a ton more things that I would add to building better, more resilient habits but I’ll stop here for now. If you have any other suggestions or ideas to build habits, please post them below. I’d love to hear what your thoughts are and experiences have been.