The 3 R’s of Habit Formation

Behavior change is tough, especially when you’re trying to adopt a new habitual behavior. A daunting array of psychological ideas underlie the formation of a new habit. Fortunately, these concepts and practices cluster nicely into an easy-to-remember trio of familiar actions. If you want to make a behavior a habit, all you have to do is:

  • Resolve firmly that you will pursue the new habit.
  • Rehearse the new habit to set yourself up for success.
  • Repeat the new habit enough to times to make it automatic.

Step-by-step, here’s how this works.

photo of hiker looking at mountain

1. Resolve

Anyone who has made a New Year’s resolution gets the concept of resolve. “From this day forth,” you vow, “My life will be perfect. I will eat right, exercise every day, communicate better with my partner and friends, and be more focused and productive at work.” Overcome with the excitement and hope for a new year, you doom yourself to failure by taking on too much behavior change at once. Which leads us to the first habit-formation concept:

Stewardship of Resources

Your resolution is useless if you can’t bring focused effort to establishing your new habit. Taking on too much at once, attempting a new behavior that falls outside of your abilities, or otherwise overtaxing your resources will stop the formation of your new habit before it ever has a chance to get started. Be a good steward of your limited behavior-change resources to give your new habit its best chance to succeed. Realistically, do you have the time, the energy, the emotional wherewithal, and other resources that it will take to implement this new behavior? Say, for example, that you want to sit less at work and set the goal to make it a habit to stand up from your desk chair once every 20 minutes. That’s a pretty simple activity, but it may require, for example, overcoming self-consciousness as your co-workers comment your new standing habit. Thinking through these resource issues increases the odds that your desired new behavior will take hold as a habit.

Intention Aligned with Your Vision and Goals

Resolution implies a firmly set jaw and a strong stride into purposeful action. This is a lot easier when your new behavior lines up with your big-picture vision for your life and the goals you are striving for. Back to the standing example: Does reducing the risk of diabetes, cancer, and heart disease fit into your health goals? OK, that’s probably a slam dunk, but you get the idea. Before setting your intention to pursue a new behavior, ensure that the potential new habit aligns with your overall goals.

Evidence-Based Foundation

I don’t know about you, but I like some evidence behind my behavior-change decisions. Perhaps this goes back to my time living in Missouri, “The Show-Me State.” I follow up on popular press articles by reading as much original research as I can, I consult Consumer Reports before I make a major purchase, and I like to think that I’m immune to advertising and marketing influences (my friends in those industries just chuckle knowingly). You don’t have to be as suspicious as I am. But if you’re going to go to all of the trouble to resolve to adopt a new habit, do at least a little research to ensure that there is evidence to support your new habit. Back to the standing-at-work example: I have read dozens of scientific articles that make an extremely convincing case against prolonged sitting, so I felt very confident in my resolve to adopt the habit of working at a standing desk.

Belief

Resolution implies strong conviction and belief, and, indeed, you’ll need these to establish a new habit. When it comes to habit formation, there are a couple of aspects to belief. First, there is belief in yourself and in your ability to complete tasks and reach goals. This is a basic psychological concept known as self-efficacy. Second is the conception of belief in powers bigger than yourself. Admittedly, this may be overkill in many behavior-change projects. But this kind of belief is key to one of the most effective behavior-change methodologies ever devised: Alcoholics Anonymous. For years the success of AA drove the behavior-change establishment nuts. “How could a program made up in a crummy New York City apartment by some drunk guy at the end of his rope become the most successful behavior-change method in history? We’ve got Ph.D.s and stuff and we couldn’t do it.” Once they got over their academic outrage, the behavior-change gurus teased out the elements of AA that made it so effective. The program turns out to emphasize several elements now known to prompt positive change – a strong relationship with a mentor, regular meetings, as well as that all-important belief in a higher power. Whether it is God, Allah, an unspecified spiritual power, science, or simple confidence in the power of the human spirit, belief can provide a strong foundation for your habit-formation project.

Decision Fatigue

In their book, “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,” Roy Baumeister and John Tierney show how much our psychological wherewithal depends on our ability to manage “decision fatigue.” It turns out that willpower is like a muscle. It needs to be exercised and nourished, and it can become useless when exhausted. Just as we can’t do an infinite number of push-ups, we have a limited capacity to exert self-control. When you are cultivating a new habit, you will regularly face decision points at which you can either continue along in your established ruts or decide to pursue your new path. Mustering your willpower can help you maintain your resolve and overcome decision fatigue.

Public Proclamation

Finally, your resolve deepens when it is made public. Publicly proclaiming your intention to develop a new habit adds external accountability and can turn your co-workers, friends, and family into cheerleaders. Think about John F. Kennedy’s speech in 1961 in which he promised to put a man on moon by the end of the decade, which NASA did just eight years later. Your new habit doesn’t have to be that ambitious to benefit from a public announcement.

photo of community theatre group rehearsing a play

2. Rehearse

Just as the cast and crew of a play visualize and practice their staging of a production to ensure a successful performance, rehearsing your new habit sets the stage for its success.

Practice

Practice is not the exact same as rehearsal. Actors memorize their lines and practice them alone before coming to rehearsal. Similarly, you’ll want to to clearly define the specific new behavior that you want to turn into a habit and practice it. You are doing something new, and even though it might appear to be a ridiculously easy behavior like simply standing up, you should practice it a few times before you begin repeating it. Also, just as an actor reads a script before deciding whether to accept a role, if your new desired habit is at all complex or novel you may want to try it out before you invest in trying to make it a habit. For example, if you are thinking of switching to a treadmill desk, you might want to practice working at a colleague’s walking workstation for a few hours before you spend (or ask your boss to spend) a couple of thousand dollars on new furniture.

Cast & Crew

Stage productions are never a one-person affair. Even a solo performer has a director, lighting and sound crew, and others helping them put on a show. Likewise, you’ll want to enlist a support crew for your habit-formation project. For a simple habit like standing up regularly during the day, you might just need to let your colleagues and boss about your new goal so that don’t puzzle over your new behavior (“Larry sure seems fidgety lately,” they might wonder, “I hope he’s OK.”). For a new habit of any complexity or consequence, you may need to enlist more involved help from your support team.

Visualization

Envisioning the execution of your new behavioral routine and, in particular, the reward that comes with it, is a proven way to cement the new routine in your mind, even before you begin it in earnest. Whether you’re picturing the standing ovation as the curtain falls on your opening-night show or visualizing your healthy arteries, engaged muscles, and improved vitality as you reap the rewards of your office fitness routines, picturing the outcome in advance can help you establish your new habit.

Staging, Props, & Costumes

A theater production happens in a staged, tightly controlled environment. Each and every prop, costume, panel of background scenery, piece of furniture, and bit of make-up is planned and laid out to impel the play production forward. Likewise, you can set the stage for success by thinking through the logistical details that support your new habit. This can be as simple as a prop like a Post-it note on your phone that says “stand” to remind you get up whenever you take a call or as complex as redesigning your entire office to encourage routine movement throughout the work day.

Keystone Habits

You can also rehearse your habit habit. Researchers have found that people who make their bed in the morning are more likely to quickly and easily adopt new healthy habits than slobs like me.* These simple habits that pave the way for bigger change are known as “keystone habits.” In his book, “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg reports that “when people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives.” James Prochaska, a researcher who has explored this idea, calls this “success on one behavior [that] increases probability of success on another” coaction. These habits can be hard to identify, but it’s worth seeking them out. The methodology of finding them goes way beyond the scope of this post, but Duhigg’s book is a great place to start.

*Actually, I’m working on this keystone habit now. I have made my bed every morning since I began researching this topic, and I have also done the dishes every night after dinner since then.

multiple copies of image of office workers in a hallway

3. Repeat

A new behavior only takes hold as a habit once it has been repeated enough to times to make it automatic.

There Are No Magic Numbers

How many days do you have to repeat a new behavioral routine before it takes hold as a habit? Conventional wisdom says 21 days, maybe as many as 30. These, it turns out, are completely arbitrary, made-up numbers. I can’t find the source of the 30-day figure, but it makes sense to assume that it has something to do with a month. The 21-day figure can be traced back to Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon best known as the author of “Psycho-Cybernetics,” a popular 1960 self-help book. Maltz also had occasion to work with amputees and observed that they seemed to acclimate to the loss of a limb after about three weeks. Figuring that if people could adapt to even an extreme change like that after 21 days, Maltz declared that any habit could be adopted in the same time frame, leading to decades of newspaper and blog headlines beginning or ending with “21 Days.”

Only a few years ago, in 2010, did researchers finally test this hypothesis. Phillippa Lally and her colleagues have discovered that it actually takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a new habit to take hold, depending on how difficult and complex it is, with the typical habit taking 66 days to set in. A simple new routine like having a glass of water after breakfast can become automatic in around 20 days, but a more arduous and time-consuming routine like doing sit-ups after lunch every day can take a couple of months. So, as you undertake cultivating a new habit, think about how difficult the new routine will be, how motivated you are to tackle it, and your ability to execute it. Then rank it on a scale from regular water-drinking (20 days) to daily sit-ups (60 days) to establishing a meditation practice (150 days) to estimate how long it will take to make it habitual. Then double that number, just to be on the safe side. Repeat the new routine that number of days, and the odds are good you will entrench it in your daily routines.

By the way, Lally also found that occasionally missing a day of your new routine isn’t the end of the world. “Although repetition of a behavior is required in order to form a habit, some missed opportunities will not derail the process.” So don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day, but do jump right back in the next day to reestablish the momentum.

Replace Undesired Behaviors

I’m trying to accentuate the positive in this model, focusing on establishing new, healthy behaviors. It’s worth thinking for a moment, though, about what’s going on with the undesirable habit you are trying to replace. For example, if you’re trying to stand more during the day, then you are automatically doing less sitting every time you repeat your new standing behavior. For another example, look at that picture above. All of those walking meetings leave no time for sitting in a poorly lit conference room with droning HVAC noises putting you to sleep. So, whenever you observe yourself doing the old behavior you’re trying to replace, simply use that as a cue to do your new routine.

Reminders

When you’re first learning a new routine, you’ll need reminders to repeat it on a regular basis. If you simply want to stand up every 20 minutes, you can set a reminder on your wristwatch, your smart phone, or your computer (if you’re online, you can do a Google search for set timer for 20 minutes). There are also, of course, numerous smartphone apps that can remind you to do your new routine. Physical props can also cue you. I mentioned above putting a Post-it on your phone to remind you stand up every time you answer it. With a new routine that involves any kind of gear, the equipment itself can serve as a reminder. A classic example of this is putting out your workout clothes the night before to remind you of your new morning-run routine.

Tracking

None of this resolution, rehearsal, and repetition counts unless you measure it. Once you have set out your desired new behavior, resolved to undertake it, rehearsed it a bit, and set an estimated number of days to make it a habit, you need to track your progress toward that number. Someone once asked Jerry Seinfeld how he wrote so many good jokes. His reply: “I write every day, and when I’m done I put a big red X through that day on my calendar. And then I don’t break the chain.” Your tracking can be as simple as that, an unbroken chain of check marks on an old-fashioned paper calendar. I have had several clients who track their behaviors in simple spreadsheets or paper journals, and, of course, there are tons of apps that can help you. In fact, there’s a whole movement growing around personal metrics known as Quantified Self.

However you do it, simply tracking your progress can, in and of itself, help you establish your new behavior. Researchers in the areas of personal financial management, smoking cessation, and weight loss have seen people change their behavior – spending less and saving more, smoking fewer cigarettes, and eating better – simply because they started tracking it.


This is a lot of information here about how to establish a habit, but you don’t have to think about all of this stuff every time you set out to create a new habit. Just remember the big steps: resolve, rehearse, repeat. Habit formation can be as simple as that.

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