The only study I ever found on the time of developing a habit concluded it takes from 18 to 254 days and in 50% of cases, it’s longer than 66 days. So, developing a habit in 21 days is not an easy feat.
The research I mentioned was about daily habits. Participants were performing their habits once a day. This is the first way to increase your chances – increase the number of repetitions.
Habits are formed by repetition. The more repetitions you can compress into the shorter period, the quicker you will develop a new habit.
Thus, if you want to develop a morning ritual, 21 days is a tough deadline. There will be only 21 mornings and you will have only 21 chances to repeat your new habit.
However, if you want to exercise more, you can do a series of pushups dozen times a day (unless, of course, your series is 100+ long, then it takes quite a few minutes at a time).
Translating the research conclusions, it takes from 18 to 254 repetitions of a new behavior to make it a habit. Repeat a new behavior a dozen times a day and you will collect 252 repetitions in 21 days, quite a safe number. If you want to be absolutely sure this new behavior will become a habit, aim for 13 or more repetitions a day.
Seriously, the number of repetitions is almost a sole success factor when it comes to developing habits. Hence, most of the other points will relate to the number of repetitions you can generate.
Some habits are not very repeatable because of their scale. If you want to work out one hour a day in a gym, you’d have needed to spend your whole 21 days in a gym to repeat this routine 12 times a day. I guess making it to the gym 3 times a day for one hour would be extremely hard for most.
It’s so much better to start small with a new habit. If you want to write a book and you plan to write 2,000 words a day, start from 200 words. If you’ve never written regularly before it’s hard enough. Depending on your speed of writing 200 words may take you from 10 to 20 minutes. Multiply this by a dozen and you end up with 2-4 hours a day.
Aim for repeatability of your habit. 2-4 hours a day doesn’t seem like a doable time investment. Maybe it’s better to scale down your writing to 100 or 50 words per one session? Remember, you should be able to repeat your routine 12 times a day.
Which brings us to the matter of difficulty. Fitting a dozen repetitions of a new habit into your schedule is hard enough. Overcoming your internal resistance while building a new habit makes the task much harder.
The rule of thumb: a single repetition of your routine should be easy for you.
I can do well over 100 consecutive pushups. 50 pushups is a breeze for me, I do it under one minute and it barely makes me breathe faster. Repeating 50 pushups a dozen times a day is easy for me.
But not for everybody. If physical prowess is your goal, but you can barely do 20 pushups, start from just one or two at a time. Seriously; it has to be easy for YOU.
Coming back to the writing example – “easy” for someone who hasn’t ever written regularly is one sentence at a time.
“Stupid easy” is even better than “easy.” If you pursue a goal of developing a habit, you should focus on the routine, on the process, not on the results. Once you establish the habit, it will be easy to get results.
If you don’t write, you cannot write a book. If you don’t exercise, you cannot break fitness records. If you don’t study, you cannot pass exams or obtain certificates.
But if you have a relevant habit, getting results is unavoidable.
If you have a reliable trigger, developing a habit becomes much easier. A rock-solid trigger can accelerate your habit development. One of the foremost functions of a human brain is pattern recognition. If the order of activities is crystal clear, a habit solidifies with magical speed.
“Every time I woke up in the morning, I start to repeat my personal mission statement.”
“Every time I approach stairs I run them, instead of walking.”
“Every time I make eye contact with someone, I smile.”
Those statements, if true (“every time!”) quickly became subconscious mechanisms. The above statements describe my habits. I don’t have to think about them. In fact, it takes my conscious effort to even notice those behaviors. I just do them.
If you want to repeat something a dozen times a day, you’d better find the right trigger for your behavior: repeatable, unique and clear. If you write on your computer one time and another time in your journal, twice in the morning and 7 times in the evening, it becomes confusing for your brain. Do you develop a writing habit or maybe 2-4 separate writing habits?
But you can take this habit under one umbrella if you always start writing when your mobile signals with a special reminder tone.
Creating a rudimentary morning ritual can be done in 21 days because waking up in the morning is the most reliable trigger in your life. Most probably, you already have some kind of morning ritual, even if it’s only how you dress up, brush your teeth, eat breakfast or prepare for school/ work. Each of those activities can be a trigger for a new habit. For example, you brush your teeth and then gulp a glass of water.
Waking up in the morning is a daily, highly repeatable, reliable and recurring signal for your brain, thus, it may become a trigger for your new habit. You lose the advantage of repeating the new activity dozens times a day, but it’s solid like no other trigger. Repeat a new behavior right after waking up for 21 straight days and your brain will quickly recognize and “save” the new behavioral pattern.
What kind of habits can you develop in 21 days?
Easy for you to perform.
Having a clear, reliable trigger.
Don’t agonize about the scale of your habit. Focus on the activity, not on the scale. Once your habit is solidified you can scale it up almost without effort. No matter if you do one pushup or 100 pushups, you need to perform the exact same routine.
A trigger occurs; then you lie on the floor; put your hands on the floor in the right distance from your shoulders; set your feet; push yourself from the floor and position your body parallel to the floor; move your arms; lower your whole body; push it away from the floor and go back to the initial position.
Now you can repeat the process for several or dozens of times. Once you are on the floor in the right position making more pushups is not a big deal. Starting the whole exercise routine is.
Using this methodology, you can develop almost any habit in 21 days and then put your focus into scaling it up and getting meaningful results.