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Helpful Hints about Habits

The weather is finally warmer. The days are longer. January is about a half year behind us (or in front of us, depending on how you look at it.)

Now is a great time to reflect on whether your New Year’s resolutions for 2010 actually have taken hold. 

 Reaching the Mountian Top

Are you exercising more, eating right, taking on more challenging projects at work, learning new skills or doing whatever you thought would be a good idea when the New Year hit?

Whatever your goals are or were, you likely gave some forethought as to how you were going to be successful in your quest. Maybe you picked up a book or talked to someone who had a strategy for achieving that goal. But when it comes down to it, improving ourselves – be it in our personal or professional lives – typically requires establishing new habits.

So what does it take to establish a new habit? Peter Bregman, Harvard Business Review blogger and author of the book “A Short Guide to Leading a Big Change,” contends you need two ingredients if you are to change behavior:

  • Fear – the catalyst that gets you started but it doesn't last
  • Reward – the incentive to sustain long-term change

Dr. Wendy Wood, James B. Duke professor of psychology and neuroscience, states, “Habits are formed when the memory associates specific actions with specific places or moods.”  In this regard, some considerations should be made when trying to form a positive habit:

  • A set time and place the habit is going to be built at/in
  • Avoidance of activities, people and things that make building your habit more challenging (if you regularly eat chips while sitting on the couch, heading for the couch may actually prompt you to reach for the bag)

Finally, many of us – especially those still struggling to make our resolutions for 2010 part of our routines – want to know how long it usually takes for something to become second nature. In 2009, several researchers in the UK completed a study to get insight into this question. Their results revealed the average time to form a new habit is 66 days.  As you would expect, there was a lot of variation in how long habits took to form – anywhere from 18 to 254 days. For example, drinking a daily glass of water becomes automatic very quickly but doing 50 sit-ups before breakfast requires more dedication. Interestingly, the researchers also noted that:

  • Missing a day does not reduce the chance of forming a habit – so don’t sweat it if you do
  • A small sub-group of people appear to be 'habit-resistant' – they may need to work harder
  • Other types of habits not tested may take much longer – depending on complexity and difficulty

So whether you are working to adopt Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, trying to take steps to improve your health or making an effort to enhance yourself in almost any other way, here’s a formula to consider: 

  1. Create a bit of useful fear by thinking about what will happen if you don’t succeed
  2. Set yourself up for success by identifying times and places for working on your goal while also removing items that could detract from it
  3. Take time to notice the positive impact of the changes happening and reward yourself at regular intervals
  4. Be patient and persistent – forming a positive habit takes time

Good luck!


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