You've heard that it takes about 21 days to create a habit.
But what if that weren't true at all? Could it be possible to create a habit overnight? Or even in the next few minutes? Let's find out.
Have you heard that it takes about 21 days to create a habit?
The reality is it doesn't. It can take 21 seconds. Or 21 minutes. If you look at a habit as something repetitive, then it's easy to believe it needs a fair bit of time to cultivate it. But if you view it through the lens of “energy”, then anything that gives you energy can become a habit in a relatively short amount of time.
And that's because habits aren't inherently good or bad—and might use up the same amount of energy
For instance—and let me get a little gross here—digging your nose, might be considered a bad habit. But if it were considered a good practice, it would take the same amount of energy. And while our current society considers digging your nose to be a terrible habit, it's something we all do, but possibly in private. That nose digging habit might be acquired in a matter of seconds.
But what if we were to consider more complex habits, instead?
Habits that involve daily routine: exercise, writing, drawing, or any form of practice seem to require momentum. Which seems right until you realise that even professionals go into habit hibernation, for reasons that have nothing to do with the habit itself.
Let's take the example of Olympian, Michael Phelps
If you're looking for discipline and habit, Phelps is a bit of a poster child, partly because his life is so extensively documented. Phelps, at the peak of his ability, was spending six hours a day in the pool, including Christmas and on his birthday. And then he went into habit hibernation. His goal was to swim in the 2012 Olympics in London.
But here's what his coach, Bob Bowman had to say
“Michael's training was a joke. Sometimes he’d show up for practice; sometimes he wouldn’t. Bowman was hopping mad. “I will never allow another athlete to treat me the way Michael did during that stretch,” Bowman recalled in a book he published last month. “We just kind of tolerated each other, and there was a time there in 2010 where I got so frustrated that I just left and went to Australia for three weeks. I was like, ‘If you’re not going to be here, I’m not going to be here. He shut me out.”
Phelps took to playing poker, instead
All those habits, that core drive to keep going, snapped and didn't look like it was coming back. Which is what habit is really about. We derive a certain amount of energy from habits.
If you look at almost any practice, even one that's as regular as brushing your teeth, it has to make you feel better at some level, or at least avoid the pain of dental decay. Once the energy goes, it's not hard to lose the habit in under a day.
However, most habits head into hibernation precisely because of a break in the pattern
We have approximately 300 bars of chocolate in the house at any given point in time, because we send out at least twice that amount to clients every year. For most people who are fans of chocolate, that much chocolate seems like a siren call of temptation. But somewhere in 2016, we decided we were mainly going to avoid sugar in as many forms as possible.
Not surprisingly, the people around us soon caught on. At birthdays, the cake is divvied up into pieces and everyone, but we are not offered a slice. My sister in law often makes tiny muffins, which I enjoy, but those muffins don't come our way any more.
Even on a long-distance flight, the aircrew will soon learn that we aren't having dessert and offer something else instead. Like Phelps, the habit started on one day and inexplicably disintegrated on another.
Greece was our downfall
The Greeks, love their desserts like most other countries. But what's unusual about Greek culture is that every meal is accompanied by free dessert. Since we travel for about a month, that's about 30 lunches and 30 dinners. Hence, 60 desserts.
If you happen to be staying at a place where breakfast is included, that's another dessert showing up without fail. And I like to draw and paint, so I find a restaurant where I can have a coffee and sit undisturbed. And if the Greeks like you, and they happened to like me, you get dessert with every coffee.
Try passing up close to a hundred desserts in the space of a month, and you see how a habit can break down.
The same sort of concept applies to anything, whether it's writing, or drawing, or dancing for that matter. You can build a great habit on a course, and keep it going for three months or more. The course ends, and you switch tracks.
If anything, that course has built skills that make you better than ever before. Your fluency has improved, and the energy required to do the task is a lot lower; hence, you should have more fun. But once the habit drops, it drops.
The good news is that hibernation isn't a “forever thing.”
Phelps got back into his routine. Once we were back in New Zealand, we weaned ourselves off the sugar. And if we want to get things done, there's no 21-day routine involved. However, it might be hard, if not impossible, to snap back to where you were before the hibernation kicked in.
If I've stopped painting, I'll start with just sketching for a while. If we've stopped walking every morning, we don't do the entire walk, but only half the distance to the cafe. We've all very successfully fooled our brains in the past, and we can do it repeatedly if that's what we choose to do.
There might be something such as a 21-day routine, but it's not going to help you get started.
If you want to get something done, there's only one way to get going. And that is to do it. All life chooses the most efficient route possible. For us as a species, lazing around and eating as much as possible, is what kept us alive for millions of years.
If you're looking for a magic pill or a 200-page book that will change your habits, you might be in luck. But what is more likely to change your life is just getting out of that hibernation and getting on with the job. And that's what most self-motivated habit is all about, anyway.
Design is the best method to change a habit
The Dutch Reach is a matter of design. As were the water bottles in Mexico that drastically reduced wastage. If you want to create a habit, the first resource should be design-oriented. The less energy you have to spend in trying to keep the habit going, the more likely it is to succeed.
Even partially designed-situations can help. Being part of a course with six-seven other group members is more likely to get you to show up, than if you're trying to achieve something all by yourself.
On the other hand, a larger group seems to fail consistently, because you're just one of the crowd. Picking situations that are already better designed is a way to ensure that you stick to your habit without trying too hard.
The crucial link between energy and habits
Nuance is essential when considering habits. When a person says they don't like exercise, what are they really saying? Maybe they just hate gyms. Or maybe they hate the loneliness of gyms and would work a lot better if they were part of a group.
There is a level of nuance in every habit, and we often seem to blurt out our thoughts at the top level. For instance, I will say “I hate my morning walk”, but with a great audiobook or podcast, I still manage to do 60-70 miles a week.
The nuance of activity can bring you enough energy for you to do a task or part of the task. In many situations, that portion of the task may be enough. Which means you could possibly manage a 300-word article, that's mostly personal, instead of an 800-word article that's business-oriented.
You have to find the nuance that gives you energy. What we define as “bad habits” give us an instant rush of energy, which is why we consistently stay with the habit. Find the nuance in the energy, and you'll keep the habit going for much longer than you expect.
The 21 Day Habit:
In New Zealand, we have a month of July, called Dry July. People who have been guzzling Chardonnay until the very last day in June, suddenly stop all alcohol in July. It doesn't take 21 days.
Habits are decided in a matter of seconds, and implementation can take place just as quickly. As you'd expect, August sees the end of the “good habit”, and it's back to guzzle time, which ramps up even more as we head into the holidays and the end of the year.
If you're hoping to create a habit over time, the good news is you don't have to wait. You just have to decide. And as with all habits, if you fall off the horse, you can get back just as quickly. Habit hibernation is a given even if you're the most dedicated taskmaster in the world. The good news is that we can all slip into that abyss and get back just as quickly.