Last year I hosted a free 5 day habits challenge in an effort to help my community stick to five easy healthy habits. We focused on drinking enough water throughout the day, meditating daily, eating our greens, getting enough sleep, and exercising. These five habits are things we should all be doing, but often fall short.
Today, I wanted to dive deep into the psychology behind habit formation, and how you can actually start and maintain habits for life. Let’s jump in!
The Three Layers to Habit Formation
I’m reading a wonderful book right now about habit formation, called Atomic Habits. In his book, James Clear writes about three layers to change. The outcome, process, and identity. The outcome is what we typically focus on: I will lose 10 lbs, I will have a 6 pack, I will make $100k this year.
The process is exactly what it sounds like – the process we go through to reach the outcome. If your goal is to lose 10 lbs, the process would include something like working out several times a week, cleaning up your diet, etc.
The identity is where it gets interesting. He says “It’s one thing to say I’m the type of person who wants this. It’s something very different to say I’m the type of person who is this.”
Instead of saying I want to run, you would say I’m a runner.
Instead of saying I want to read more books, you would say I’m a reader.
Instead of saying I want to eat healthier, you would say I’m a healthy person.
See the difference there? Focusing on your identity and the type of person you want to be is a whole different level when it comes to habit formation. You are not only setting SMART goals, and having a process in place for how to get there, but your mindset, and the way you speak about yourself is pushing you in the right direction.
How Long Does it Take to Build a Habit?
Okay, so now that we know we need to speak about ourselves differently, let’s talk about the actual habit formation process. How long will this actually take?
You may have heard that a new habit takes 21 days to form. New research is saying this is totally untrue. A study done in London looked at over 200 people and how long it took them to form new habits. While everyone was different, they said it took on average 66 days to form a new habit.
That’s more like 2 months, not 21 days. The researchers found that it took anywhere from 2-8 months for people to form a habit. What was interesting about this study was that people didn’t have to do the habit every single day. They were still able to form habits if they missed a day or two – which is a nice reminder that no-one is perfect, and success is never linear.
The Best Way to Maintain Habits
Now we know we need to change our identity, we know it’s going to be a long haul of several months, but how will we actually maintain our new healthy habits?
This may be the hardest part of habit formation: maintenance. Because habits take so long until we see results, the best way to set yourself up on a positive trajectory is to track your habits. Physically write out what you are trying to change, and check in with yourself daily to see if you maintain your habits.
Why does this matter?
Well, our brains like immediate gratification. We don’t like doing the same thing over and over and not seeing results for months. But this is often the case with the big goals we have like losing a lot of weight, getting fit, and becoming less stressed. Big goals take a long time!
I always tell my clients: it took you your entire life to be where you’re at right now. Now you want to change, and that’s great – but don’t expect immediate results.
The thing is, our brains like immediate results. We thrive on it. So how can we do something that is gratifying, while along this path to habit formation? We can track it! Tracking your habits, and checking off a box can be extremely gratifying. A habit tracker reminds you on a daily basis of what you should be doing.
As James Clear says: “Research has shown that people who track their progress on goals like losing weight, quitting smoking, and lowering blood pressure are all more likely to improve than those who don’t. One study of 1600+ people found that those who kept a daily food log lost twice as much weight as those who did not. A habit tracker is a simple way to log your behavior, and the mere act of tracking a behavior can spark the urge to change it.”
Where we place our attention, action happens. It’s true. As soon as we decide to focus on something, our energy and efforts move towards that one thing. If you’re looking to start tracking your habits and finally get into a healthy pattern, then go check out my free habits tracker above.