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When you write your New Year’s resolutions, you may think that it takes 21 days of repeating an action for that action to become a habit. So you’ve decided to go to the gym for 21 days, thinking that by day 22 you’ll feel automatic – maybe even fun. It can be daunting to think about going to the gym for an entire year, but 21 days is doable.
We hate to burst your bubble, but that 21 day estimate isn’t true. According to habit expert and myth buster Wendy Wood, this lie comes from a 1960s self-help book and actually describes the time it takes to get used to your new appearance after plastic surgery.
How long does it take for a habit to form? It’s a question many of us want answered in those difficult early days of forming habits. When will I floss my teeth every morning without having to think about it? When will I no longer need a reminder to take my medication? When will choosing to go to the gym be easy?
Unfortunately, our recent research shows that there is no magic number.
So what are we supposed to do? We know that people with established habits have to rely less on willpower to perform good behaviors, but the early days of performing good behavior usually seem like a daunting task for everyone. Only after constant repetition will the desired behavior begin to seem easier.
We’ve found some practical, science-backed tips that might help you get there faster.
We used machine learning, which is a type of artificial intelligence, to analyze data from tens of thousands of gym users and hospital workers across North America in hopes of better understanding how Two important habits form: exercise habits and hand washing habits. .
We defined a habit as the point at which a behavior becomes highly predictable for a given person using our statistical modeling tools.
Here’s what we learned that might help you:
We’d all like to believe that exercising or doing another challenging new activity will seem automatic in three short weeks. Instead, we found evidence in our research that the speed of habit formation might be correlated with the complexity of the habit we are trying to form.
Take hand washing. Although everyone is different, people typically get into the habit of washing their hands within one to two weeks, while getting into the habit of going to the gym usually takes months. In our study, we only analyzed the formation of two types of habits, but we suspect that simple habits such as washing hands or brushing teeth may become habitual even more quickly than the old myth would have suggested. of 21 days.
Getting into the gym habit usually takes months, probably because going to the gym takes a lot of time, effort, and planning.
Why does it take months rather than weeks for practicing sport to become a habit? We only compared two habits in our study, but we think the complexity of going to the gym slows down habit formation. Going to the gym takes a lot of time, effort and planning. And it’s a daily habit at most, making it much less frequent than, say, hand washing. In general, previous research suggests that more repetitions are essential for habit formation.
What does this mean to you? If you’re starting a Couch to 5K training plan, don’t worry if you don’t mindlessly lace up those running shoes until week four. It will probably take a few months for your workouts to feel automatic. A good dose of patience will serve you well.
If you want to develop a physical activity habit more quickly, consider trying a quicker form of exercise – such as doing a few jumping jacks or squats – and doing it every hour. This could help you put your new habit on autopilot in a shorter period of time.
It’s common to think that forming healthy habits depends on willpower, but habit researchers (including our team) don’t recommend “willing” to create a habit. Instead, we encourage you to focus on creating habit-friendly situations – environments that will ultimately “cue” a desired behavior.
Cues can include elements of your physical environment, the time of day, specific objects, or even people you encounter. For example, seeing the digital clock in your bathroom flashing “6:30 a.m.” may prompt you to brush your teeth if you have regularly brushed your teeth at that time in the past.
According to previous research, thinking about when and where you plan to achieve a goal is essential for successful habit formation. We’ve also had good results with using novel cues to trigger people’s memories. So if you want to start going to the gym, our research and that of others suggests that it’s best to plan what day of the week you want to go and perhaps add a unique cue such as an alarm on your phone that plays “Physique” by Olivia Newton-John every time you’re supposed to go to the gym.
But don’t despair if you don’t find the right clues right away. At the beginning of building a habit, you should anticipate an exploratory phase, because some parts of whatever you are trying to put on autopilot will be new and you will need to learn how to integrate them into your daily life.
It’s worth it. We’ve found that the longer we observe someone, the more predictable exercise (or hand washing) habits become. After a period of experimentation and repetition, you will eventually be able to establish predictable habits.
The dark side of habits is that once they’re formed, you adopt them reflexively – even if it’s not the best option. If you consciously and effortfully chose fruit over a muffin every morning, you would probably notice if your apple looked rotten. But if you take an apple on autopilot, you might find out it’s bad only after you walk out the door and take your first bite on the way to work. Yuck!
Is this risk real? Do we respond less to information suggesting that we should or should not stick with an activity or choice once we are used to it?
We were able to test this idea in our data by examining how gym-goers respond to various exercise-inducing interventions, which temporarily make going to the gym more rewarding. By dividing gym-goers into those who, according to our algorithm, had formed a habit and those who had not, we examined whether these incentives mattered more to one group than the other. As we predicted, we found that people who had already formed a habit were less responsive to new rewards for going to the gym.
What does this mean to you? Habits will make you less flexible when there is a valid reason to change your behavior. In fact, some variability in a routine can create more lasting habits. So pay attention to which behaviors that you perform frequently and make sure that you want these things to become habitual. Behaviors that we may consider “bad habits,” like constantly checking your phone, are just as likely to become automatic and harder to change.
This January, when you set resolutions and try to put them on autopilot, remember that you can’t rely on habits that will take effect after a magic number of days. If it’s been 21 days and you still need to put a workout on the calendar to make it a reality, don’t give up hope. There’s nothing wrong with you, and a gym habit may still be around the corner.
Habits are not a pipe dream. With repetition, most people can eventually develop predictable routines that are difficult to deviate from.
Colin Camerer and Hung Ho contributed to this article.
Kasandra Brabaw is a journalist and editor specializing in health and wellness. Her work can be found on Women’s Health, Well+Good, Refinery29, Chicago Booth Review, Harvard Business School Working Knowledge and more.
Anastasia Buyalskaya is a behavior specialist and assistant professor at HEC Paris. Having started her career in asset management, she advises some of the world’s largest investors, integrating behavioral science into their investment processes.
Colin Cameron is the Robert Kirby Professor of Behavioral Economics at the California Institute of Technology. He is a 2013 MacArthur Fellow and Director of the Tianqiao and Chrissy Center for Social and Decision Neuroscience.
Angela Duckworth is the Rosa Lee and Egbert Chang Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She is a 2013 MacArthur Fellow, author of “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” co-founder of Character Lab, co-founder of the Behavior Change for Good Initiative, and host of Freakonomics Radio’s “No Stupid Questions” podcast.
Hung Ho is a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. His research combines insights from behavioral economics and industrial organization to study how behavioral biases and economic frictions affect interactions between businesses and consumers.
Katy Milkman is James G. Dinan Professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, author of “How to Change: The Science of Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be”, co-founder of Behavior Change for Good Initiative and host of Charles Schwab’s “Choiceology” podcast.
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