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Habits Take Time – A Lot More Than You Thought

Habits Take TimeHave you ever intended to start something new and been derailed in record time? Lord knows I have. Many, many times. I used to think that all I had to do was identify something that I wanted to change and then go do it. Changing habits is easy-peasey, right? Turns out that’s not the case. But Aristotle said: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle was a smart guy so we need to give this some thought.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. – Aristotle Tweet this

HABITS DON’T JUST HAPPEN

According to a Fast Company article about habits, most of the time we are running on autopilot. The habits we have established over time are the default actions we take without even thinking about it. That probably doesn’t surprise anyone, but the facts on how long it takes to change that process probably will.

I’ve heard numbers thrown around that doing something eight times in a row makes a habit, or two weeks, or even a month. According to psychologist Jeremy Dean, basic changes take an average of 66 days to form. 66 days! It gets worse. More intensive habits take something in the neighborhood of 84 days to form. That’s a big commitment. And add to that the principle that self-control is a limited and finite resource for most people. You only have so much available during the day and the more you use it, the less you have as the day goes on. And to top it all off, a Duke University study says our brains link environmental cues to our actions so that when those cues are present (if you smoke at a certain place every day or have a beer at a particular bar – think Pavlov’s dog) we tend to take the linked action without even really thinking about it.

HABITS ARE HARD TO BREAK

So the bad news is that it takes a long time and a lot of work to change a habit. Far longer than most of us realize and all of us would like. That’s why it is so important to make sure we are aware of what we do often enough and long enough to become a habit. Sitting around all winter watching tv and laying on the couch? That becomes a habit. Focusing so much on your job and working overtime to the point you have to reintroduce yourself to your spouse on Saturday morning? That becomes a habit (and so does alimony and child-support).

BUT THE REWARDS ARE WORTH IT

Ah, but there is good news. Habits can be changed. Yes, it is hard. We should have thought of that when we were putting those bad habits in place; but the longer you engage in a specific behavior, the easier it becomes. And pretty soon (about 66 – 84 days to be exact) you begin to experience the effects of the autopilot and that behavior becomes the default action.

So the question is: Can you stick to a new habit for 3 months? If you can, odds are it will stick.

Scott Wilson is the Director of Communications and Technology for The Urban Child Institute (tuci.org), a not-for-profit dedicated to improving the development and well-being of children. He is also a marketing and business strategy consultant for small businesses and writes regularly about Leadership, Communication and Marketing on his blog, scottkwilson.com.

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