Debunking 3 Myths About Habits

January is almost over and if you’re anything like me (or the general American public), you’ve already slipped on your New Year’s Resolution a few times. OK, OK, a few dozen times. Based on everything you’ve heard about building habits, you may think your 2020 Resolutions are already lost causes. But don’t worry – a lot of what we’ve been told about habits aren’t true!

Myth 1: It Takes 21 Days To Form A Habit

This is the most common myth out there! I’ve heard it countless times from teachers, coaches, and friends. If you can keep a new behavior up for 3 weeks, it’ll become a habit and you’re good to go! Here’s the problem with that, though. It’s not true.

The idea comes from the 1960’s book Psycho-Cybernetics by Dr. Maltz, a cosmetic surgeon. He noticed that it took clients 21 days to adjust to their new appearances, like a new nose or a limb missing from amputation. He applied the rule to creating habits in his book and the concept spread like wildfire.

Personally, I’ve tried this technique before. In college, I had a habit of biting my nails. It was a small thing so I figured it would be easily remedied with the 21-day rule. Not only was it not easy (old habits die hard) but at the end of the 3 weeks, I still wanted to nibble my nails! No new habit had emerged! I figured I had done something wrong.

Turns out I wasn’t wrong, I was only a 1/3 of the way through the process! Researchers in London studied people trying to develop new habits and discovered that it took an average of 66 days for new behaviors to feel automatic!

So if you’ve been plodding along, faithfully trying to keep your New Year’s Resolution, and it still feels like a drag, don’t worry! You’re on the right path!

Myth 2: I Can’t Miss A Single Day!

When asked what advice he had for young comics, Jerry Seinfeld shared he uses a calendar to make sure he writes every day. Whenever he’s done writing, he checks that day off the calendar, creating a chain that grows longer and longer as you go. “Your only job is not to break the chain,” Seinfeld said. The internet got ahold of this and dubbed it Jerry Seinfeld’s “Don’t Break The Chain” method and “The Seinfeld Strategy.”

While it may be a good way to keep your motivation up, daily consistency actually isn’t required for the development of actual habits. Those same researchers in London found that occasionally missing a day did not impact the overall development of habit.

While I love the idea of visually seeing a chain of your progress, we are all human. We have bad or busy days where we slip out of our good intentions. If this has happened to you, no need to restart the clock. Just get back up and try again. In the game of habits, consistency matters more than perfection.

This has huge implications for anyone in therapy working to stop doing behaviors they don’t like. From negative self-talk to addictions to self-harming, I’ve seen many people use this calendar method before. Having to skip a day can feel crushing. Please know that one day, or even a few days, won’t undo your hard work. I hope this information helps relieve the pressure of mistakes. You too are trying to build a new habit, like speaking kindly to yourself or using healthier coping methods. One day won’t derail the progress you’ve made. Keep it up, it’ll get better!

Myth 3: All You Need Is Self-Control

You know how it goes. Each time you set a new goal, you’re on the ball for the first few days. A little time goes by, the goal feels harder to do, and you slip up or stop trying all together. Conventional wisdom says you just need to buckle down and get it done. As Nike and Shia LaBeouf would tell you, “Just Do It!” Implying that if it doesn’t get done, your lack of self-control and willpower is to blame. You simply didn’t try hard enough.

Dr. Wendy Wood, author of Good Habits, Bad Habits, observed “we still tend to assume that self-control and willpower are the only authentic ways to achieve results.” Are they the most effective ways? Not entirely. “We’re just making life more difficult for ourselves, and setting up the vast majority of us with normal levels of willpower to experience failure,” Dr. Wood explains.

Research shows that those who utilize situational control, like creating environments that support your goal, are actually more successful in changing their behavior than those who depend on self-control alone.

Why is this? It takes our brain a lot of energy to maintain self-control! It’s physically not able to maintain that level of energy 100% of the time. It gets tired and needs to take a break. When it does, you’re at risk for reverting back to old habits. Changing your environment to something more supportive is like having a safety net. When your brain checks out, you’ve got back up.

If you want to start running this year, consider sleeping in your running clothes and putting your alarm on the other side of the room. That way you have to get out of bed each morning and you’re already dressed! Or if you’re trying to decrease your screen time, leave your phone in the other room. If you want to eat healthier, don’t go down the cookie aisle at the store. Consider what would make it easier to keep your goal and see if you can work that into your daily life.

Remember my college nail biting habit? I actually don’t bite my nails anymore. But it’s not because I had enough self-control to resist the urge for 66 days. I actually found that if I painted my nails, I lost all desire to chew them. It’s worked for the last 7 years!

Bottom Line

There’s a lot we have wrong about changing our habits. Habits take longer than we think, it’s OK to slip-up, and there are ways to work smarter instead of harder! Remember these tips; hopefully they’ll make habits less stressful and more effective!

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Published by Quietude Counseling

Mental Health & Trauma Treatment