3 Common Habit Building Myths That Are Holding You Back
Do you sometimes feel like you are following all the advice you can find on habits, but you are still struggling to make changes?
This may be because not all of the advice that you will find on habits is good advice. Researchers have been actively investigating habits for at least 60 years. In that time, they have learned a lot, but a number of myths have also emerged.
To be frank, some of the most popular advice on habits is based on ideas that have been disproven by researchers. But the ideas remain in the public domain.
Clinging to false ideas locked up in habit myths is one of the reasons why many people fail when it comes to changing their habits.
In this article, we are going to debunk three of the most common myths about habits, and explain not only why they are inaccurate, but detrimental to anyone trying to use this “common knowledge” to improve their lives.
Myth 1: It takes a set number of days to build a habit
Researchers in the 1960s argued that it took 21 days, or three weeks, to develop a new habit. This is based on the observation that this is about how long it takes for things to start to feel “normal”. For example, most people start to feel at home in a new house after three weeks.
That this logic applies to habits was disproved in the 1990s and replaced with the idea that it takes 66 days to form a habit. But this is not actually what the relevant study found. The study of just under 100 people found that it took an average of 66 days for people to form a new habit. But results were by no means clustered around this number. In fact, it took participants anywhere between 18 and 254 days to form a habit.
The fact of the matter is that there is no hard and fast rule for how long it takes to build a habit. Some seem to occur instantly (that first cigarette), while others won’t stick no matter how much willpower you exert to repeat the action every day. So there is no point clinging to the idea of doing something for a certain number of days to make it stick.
This is because habits don’t develop from just doing the same thing over and over. For an action to become a habit - something you do subconsciously - it also requires a trigger and a reward.
Take someone who habitually reaches for a glass of wine at 8 pm on a work night. The action is probably triggered by a combination of having been at work all day, having finished certain home tasks, being at home, and the clock hitting a certain hour (in this case 8 pm).
The first few times this happened, our subject probably had lots of options for what they could do, but for whatever reason, they went with the wine. It rewarded them with a little chemical hit from alcohol, but probably also a nice taste, and maybe a feeling in indulgence.
When faced with the same situation, the same trigger, the brain said, hey, I know what to do next, it made us feel great before, it will again. Over a surprisingly short period of time, this becomes the brain’s default response to the situation, and therefore a habit that is difficult to break. This is because your subconscious mind makes the decision so quickly, that your conscious mind doesn’t have an opportunity to think before the wine is already in the glass.
Learn more about using the science of trigger and reward to build and break habits.
Myth 2: Missing days hinders your progress
In the 1990s, thanks to comedian Jerry Seinfeld, the idea emerged that for new habits to stick you have to do the action every day without missing one. Otherwise, you will break the chain and find yourself back at square one.
Consistency is important when developing habits, but the idea that missing one day will send you back to the beginning is false, and also dangerous. How many people have given up on pursuing a habit completely because of a few setbacks?
In fact, depending on the habit, it is not even a good idea to do it every day. It is now well accepted that exercising every day, for example going for a run, can lead to physical burnout that can do more damage than good, and that rest days are an essential part of any physical fitness routine.
Researchers Brad Solberg and Steve Magnus have also demonstrated that rest and recuperation are just as important for mental and creative tasks as physical ones.
As such, not only is the idea of not missing a day disheartening when you do miss a day, but it can also be self-sabotaging. You can be setting yourself up for burnout.
However, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t track your progress. It turns out that tracking and ticking things off lists give most people a small happy feeling in the brain which can act as a reward. So ticking something off a list every day - or rather almost every day - is a great thing to do when building or breaking habits.
If you haven’t already, trying Habitify is a great way to track your progress. A simple to use app, you can set your habit task as something to do every day, certain days of the week, a certain number of days within the week, and so forth. So you get your satisfying box tick without having to do something every day.
Learn more about how to use Habitify to create new habits here.
Myth 3: When building habits concentrate on goals
We are often told that we need to find our “why” in order to have the motivation we need to make changes. We are told to have big scary dreams in order to live bold, exceptional lives.
While this is good advice, you can get into trouble when you focus more on the destination than the process.
As an example, let’s take a relatively straightforward and common goal: I will lose 20 pounds within six months. In the first week, you do really well and lose two pounds, and one more the second week. Your weight remains static the week after that, and then you gain five pounds, so you are heavier than when you started. When you hit the three-month mark, you have lost a grand total of four pounds. You are definitely starting to believe that your target is out of reach.
A lot of people will understand if, at this point, you become pretty unmotivated. Perhaps that next trip to the gym just doesn’t happen, and you don’t have the willpower to say no to how good that very large slice of chocolate cake will make you feel.
Also, because you are so focussed on that goal, perhaps you aren’t seeing all the other things that you have gained in those three months. While you haven’t lost a lot of pounds, your body has changed and your clothes are feeling looser. You are sleeping better, you have more energy, and you are already able to do certain things that you thought would always be impossible for you. But you are so focussed on what you haven’t achieved that you can’t really see these things.
So focussing on your goal can not only diminish your motivation to do what you need to do, but can also limit you from seeing the other things that you are achieving and other opportunities that they might present.
This is why success coaches suggest that what you really need to do is:
(1) come up with your goal;
(2) come up with a realistic list of things that you need to do to reach that goal;
(3) come up with a plan and system for doing those things;
(4) forget about your goal.
So, when it comes to our losing 20 pounds, the suggestion is to come up with a detailed healthy eating plan, and a workout schedule that is designed to become a little harder each week. Once that is done, forget about the 20 pounds and just focus on the steps you need to take in order to stick to the process.
While you can’t control that 20 pounds to perfection, you can control whether you go to the gym five times a week, and tick them off the list (maybe in your Habitify app). While you don’t know when cutting down on sugar and eating more vegetables is going to pay off in terms of your weight, if you don’t focus on that, you might just have the bandwidth to notice how much more energy you have.
If you focus on the process rather than the destination, before you know it, you might not only have achieved your goal, but something better.
This philosophy is nicely summed up by infamous football coach Bill Walsh:
“If the players take care of the details, the score takes care of itself.”
If you want to learn the best way to set detailed goals and create successful habits, read our article Why resolutions fail and how to ensure your success.
Taking control of your habits is a great way to take control of your life, make important changes, and reach your goals. Luckily, there is a lot of advice out there to help us do just that, but unfortunately, not all of that advice is good advice.
There are a few persistent myths out there about habits, which are actually undermining people’s progress. We have busted the three most prevalent myths to help ensure they don’t hold anyone back.