I've heard it takes 21 days to form a new habit. While it's nice to have a quantitative goal as we attempt to change habits, it's more complicated than just doing something for a certain length of time to really make it stick.
Our brains function on autopilot for much of our days - brushing our teeth, turning on the coffee pot, washing our face each night. We don't even have to think about it. This is why it's so crucial to form habits that help create the life that we want.
Habits form in three basic steps - trigger, action, and reward. Say the habit you're trying to form is going for a walk each morning - let's break that down.
Create a trigger: It's important to add a trigger that doesn't already exist, otherwise, your mind will default to its existent protocol. For example, you could lay your workout shoes next to your bed so that you see them first thing when your alarm goes off. The visual of your shoes will serve as the trigger for your morning walk. It's important to keep the trigger consistent, so you'll want to do this every night.
Action: This is simply taking the walk. Initially, it will not feel automatic. You'll have to will yourself to take the action, but eventually, with diligence, this can become a part of your routine as much as brushing your teeth.
Reward: This is important, and often the most overlooked part of forming a habit. It's possible that initially, even positive habits may have negative consequences that make it hard to pinpoint the reward. For example, you may feel tired or grumpy that your alarm is going off earlier than usual when you first start this walking habit. However, perhaps when the walk is done, you feel alert and proud of your efforts. After a few weeks maybe you have more energy, have lost a little weight, and are sleeping better at night. Since these rewards aren't immediate and in-your-face obvious, it's important to journal about your rewards so you can see them more clearly.
Take it a step further: It can be an excellent idea to set up an immediate, obvious reward when you are in the process of forming a habit. Example: In the beginning stages of waking up early to walk, you could end your walk each day at your favorite coffee shop and grab a latte, when normally you'd just head to work and grab a mediocre coffee there. This new reward will help your brain learn that this new habit is worthwhile, and help you make it automatic.
It's important to also talk about removing bad habits. It's crucial that each time you remove a habit, you replace it with a new one. Step one is to think about why you developed the bad habit in the first place. For example, let's say your habit is eating ice cream every night. First, you must understand why. Are you bored, do you associate the TV turning on with a snack, or are you actually just hungry? Once you know the why, you can work to correct it. If the TV turning on means snack time, perhaps you ditch the TV altogether and start a new book. Or, you trade your ice cream for a healthier sweet treat like a square of dark chocolate or a bowl of berries with coconut cream.
Changing habits take diligence but it can be the secret sauce to accomplishing your goals and creating the life of your dreams. Let me know which habits you're trying to ditch or add in the comments below!