UPDATE: OCTOBER 2012
5 Steps to Cultivating the Power of Habit – How to Transform Self-Limiting Thought Habits with Agile Thinking Habits
IMHO, one of the most pervasive myths in the area of establishing new habits is that it takes 21 days of repetition to "establish" the new habit. What got me started on this topic?
Well, earlier today, Stephen over at HDBizBlog wrote an excellent post addressing how to establish the habit of checking a Tickler File - especially if you have ADD. He gave very detailed tips on organizing your environment to support the new habit. In his post, however, he mentioned that it takes 21 days of "repeating a behavior on a daily basis" to establish a habit.
In the ensuing discussion, Rob from 7Breaths commented that he had never seen any real research that stated this.
Stephen found a source, but found it wasn't based on actual research - it was the writer's "empirical observation". The 21 day theory seems to have originated in the book, Psycho-Cybernetics, by Maxwell Maltz, a pop psychology book from the 70's (which was updated in 1989) (See Stephen's full article, comments & discussion here)
Back to the New Habits in 21 Days Theory.
I don't buy it.
In my experience helping people change habits, both in the corporate world and as an organizing consultant and coach, not to mention trying to change my own habits, the 21 day theory is just another one of those popular "flavor of the month" slogans designed to "motivate" you, and help you "think Positive." Kinda like, "you can be anything you want to be" or "you can choose how you want to feel" or "if you think it, it will happen".
Reducing human psychology and motivation to these simplistic sayings may be effective marketing, but these one-liners are just plain NOT true. In fact, they often end up having adverse effects because they actually make us feel bad about ourselves because we can't live up to the saying!
In the real world, many habits take much longer than 21 days to establish and even then, aren't really "established."
In reality, most people backslide and have to deal with deeper attitudes and emotional stuff, or the fact that their personality style or even genetics are simply different from other people's. We are NOT all created equal. We are different. Not everyone can successfully establish any habit they choose. At least not within a reasonable amount of expended effort.
I've seen people, myself included, who have performed certain habits for 6 months, a year or even more and then backslide. The habit simply never felt natural. Give me an example you say?
Ok. Let's take trying to establish the habit of getting up early. Or going to bed at the same time every night. I can go for months and months of successfully getting up early (for me that's 6:00 AM) But all it takes is one night of staying up late, because we go to a party or for New Year's eve, whatever, and I go back to my "go to bed at 2" and "get up at 9" routine - in a heartbeat. I have to start all over again struggling to get up early and go to sleep early.
Instead of thinking there is something wrong with me, I've finally accepted that I'm a night person - to the core. The only reason I even keep trying to be an early riser is because my husband is an early riser and so is much of the world I live in. But it has NEVER felt natural to me and it will never be a true habit. I have to work at it all the time. But enough about me.
On the other hand, some habits can be established instantly.
From the first minute you set up the new process or system, it works. I think the most important consideration in how long it will take to establish a new habit is how "right" and how "natural" it feels to you. It's like a magic moment when you hit on that solution / habit that just works from day 1.
Like when I help someone learn to put their keys in the same spot every time when they come in the house. One client tried using all kinds of hooks on the wall in many different places - but it never worked. He still put the keys where ever he dropped them. To help him change the habit, I had him show me where the keys usually landed. Then I chose what seemed to be the closest natural spot for him to easily drop his keys. We put a small basket there, and he instantly started using it and it was never an issue again. The secret was choosing the right habit for him. Hooks may work for a lot of people, but for people who are natural "droppers", the hook on the wall just won't work. Rather than spend a lot of effort changing HIM, we figured out the right environment to support changing the habit.
Is it worth even trying to change?
Some habits, like early rising, and healthy eating, are worth the effort of continuously struggling to develop them. But many things, like using a tickler file, are optional. There ARE other perfectly acceptable ways to followup on your commitments and actions. If what you are doing isn't broken, and it feels natural to you, then stick with it. No matter how other people perceive it.
Sometimes, it's just not worth the time, effort and pain of trying to change a habit and failing at it. So if you work well with a paper planner, don't feel you have to use a PDA just because someone tells you they could never live without their's.
But if what you are doing now IS NOT working, then you do want to try something different. But if you give it a solid week or so and it still doesn't feel right to you, don't assume it's because there is something "wrong" with you. You may just have to keep searching for the "right" habit or solution. Or you may have to organize yourself and your environment to support your desired habits better. Which is exactly what Stephen did to help him acquire the habit of using his own creative approach to the tickler file.