Real Habit Formation and Lifestyle Change

I’ve noticed the sudden proliferation of 21-day, 28-day, and-30 day challenges that are being advertised now that it’s spring.

We’ve all heard that old sage advice (or perhaps urban legend) that doing anything for 21 days creates a habit.  As a result, we’re now constantly inundated with challenges that last about that amount of time.

How many of us here have done one of these challenges and then fallen off the wagon the day after the challenge ended?

You can’t see me, right now, but if you could, you’d see that my hand is up.  If it only takes 21 days to create a habit, then why haven’t all of our habits been perfected after a series of well-designed 21-day blocks?

I think it has to do with this dialogue from the movie Before Sunrise.  If you aren’t old enough to remember this movie, then go watch it.¹

Here’s the conversation:

Jesse: You know, it’s like…nothing much that happens to us changes our disposition.

Céline: Really, you believe that?

Jesse: I think so. I read this study where they followed people who had won the lottery, and people who had become paraplegics, right. I mean you’d think that…you know, one extreme is gonna make you…euphoric, and the other suicidal. But the study shows that after about 6 months…

Céline: Uhum?

Jesse: Right…as soon as people got used to their new situation, they were more or less the same.

Céline: The same?

Jesse: Well, yeah…Like if they were basically an optimistic, jovial person, they’re now an optimistic, jovial person, in a wheelchair. If they’re a petty miserable asshole, OK, they’re a petty miserable asshole with a new Cadillac, a house and a boat.

Yes, of course I looked up the study that Jesse is talking about!  It’s called:  “Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?”²

Unlike Jesse, this study doesn’t cause me to conclude that we can’t ever change our dispositions, but that it takes about six months for a major lifestyle change to feel normal.

Once it feels normal, it has become habitual.

Most 21-day challenges aren’t about making a small, uneventful change.  They’re about getting immediate and dramatic results.

The problem is that immediate and dramatic usually don’t go with long-lasting.  The study Jesse cited suggests that if you want an extreme change to start feeling normal, then you’re probably going to have to wait for the six month mark, not the 21 day mark.  I’ve found this to be true in my own life.

I’ve also found it to be true that 21-day “challenges” are awesome for baby-steps, in which case, it’s not really a 21-day challenge, but more like a tiny change that seamlessly integrates itself into your life.

In order to set up a decent 21-day habit change, the key is to make the change small enough that you don’t notice when Day 21 has passed.  This is going to be different for everyone.  Something that is massively hard for one person can be barely a blip on the radar for someone else.

If you’re counting down the days until the challenge is over, then chances are you’re going to majorly fall off the wagon on Day 22.  You haven’t really changed anything.

For example, you can diet so much that you’ll lose a bunch of weight immediately, but eventually, you will fall off the wagon because your dietary change was so extreme that it became unsustainable.  Statistically speaking, the weight will come back—and then some.

If we’re thinking about making lifestyle changes, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves, “How do I want to live for the rest of my life?”  Rather than, “How do I want to live until I reach some short term goal?”  Given that perspective, how does your goal planning change?

In other words, would you rather spend years yo-yo dieting (where you see extreme losses but also extreme gains) and end up worse off after it’s over, or would you rather make slow and steady—but permanent—changes that will last the rest of your life?

¹If you’re watching it for the first time today, be very, very grateful that you don’t have to wait nine years to find out what happens after this movie ends and then wait another nine years to find out what happens after that movie ends, like those of us who watched the series when it first came out.
²Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(8), 917–927.

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