Anyone who is willing to self-optimize should have missed this promise: Do you want to get fitter? Healthier? More powerful? More yoga, more vegetables, more jogging in the morning? Make it a habit! Make it a habit.
Of course there are, the habits that can feel like automatisms. Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of driving a car in Great Britain knows the unpleasant feeling when the right hand hits the side door in search of the gear stick. Shifting with the right is a habit. Pinching your nails is a habit. Helping others is a habit. Pick up your smartphone in the toilet, kiss your partner, laugh at weak jokes from people in authority. All habits. But habits are overrated.
Habits are a great excuse
We think we know the habits of undesirable behaviors as well: the chocolate chip cookie in the afternoon, the white coffee that should long since be replaced by a tea, the Saturday morning that feels so much better in bed than when it is drizzling in the park. Wouldn’t it be great if the brain let us walk to the park instead of the fridge?
But the uncomfortable truth is: none of these are actually habits. These are decisions – easy ones, admittedly. In scientific consensus, the automatic action of a habit is defined as follows: It runs efficiently, unconsciously, not on purpose and not in a controlled manner.
But who can find themselves uncontrolled on the yoga mat? Habits are so seductive as an idea that their function is far too rarely questioned. But let’s think it through practically:
If chocolate biscuits regularly appeared in front of the mouth and were then devoured reflexively: THAT might be a sign of a habit (or frog-like reflexes). Getting up from the desk, leaving the office, taking the elevator or the stairs, going to the café, waiting in line, choosing a cookie, buying, paying, walking on, unpacking, eating – this is not a habit. It’s a very complex act with lots of small decisions.
On average, it takes 66 days to establish a habit
There are tons of studies that fuel belief in habits. The first to write scientifically about habits was Maxwell Maltz – cosmetic surgeon. In 1960 he noted that it took an average of 21 days for patients to get used to a new reflection after the operation. Or the fact that a leg was amputated. So far, so unrealistic – if only because nerves are affected during amputations.
But habits are of course also a trend in research. In a study with 96 participants, it took at least 18 days for a new action to take place semi-automatically, 66 days on average and a maximum of 254 days. So that would be more than eight months. The aim was to perform a certain action every day in a defined context. Examples: fruit for lunch or watching TV in the evening. A glass of water after breakfast. 50 sit-ups after your first coffee.
A questionnaire was then used daily to find out how easy it was for the participants to take the action. It became easier and easier as the repetition increased. And by the way, it had no effect on the result if the action failed.
Habits are often not what the term promises
But what does this result tell us now about “habits”? I believe nothing.
So we don’t know whether the people in the study would not have achieved their goal much more easily and quickly, for example with mental training. We do not know what happened after the study with their newly practiced behavior. All we know is that by the end of the study, they felt that it was easier for them to do what they set out to do long before. We don’t know why that is.
Habits are often not what the term promises. They are certainly not an automatic mechanism that applies after a fixed number of days and is no longer strenuous if you just persevere. And it is the same with jogging in the morning or the yoga session. This will not become a habit in the sense of an automatism. Never. No matter what listicles promise you on the Internet and no matter which strong trigger you bind it to. It will always be a decision. Because people don’t run in IF-THEN programming language. People walk on neural networks – and they often have much better ideas than doing yoga early in the morning.
What you want as a habit and what is actually a decision actually becomes easier the more often you have already done the action – because the body gets used to it. Resisting the cookie is easier when blood sugar levels are more stable. Yoga and running get easier as your muscles get harder. At the same time, the brain and conscious thinking recognize: Ah! This action is good, let’s continue. And so it will always be easier to make the decision.
Confidence as a shortcut: You do what you have decided to do
Striving for a new habit will not harm you. And of course it’s a great motivation to pursue such an ideal. However, the path may be rather inefficient.
A shortcut to behave the way you want to, even without habits, would be to turn away from belief in bastard and habit. Trust your goals! And trust your own ability to shape your life. You have been shaping your life for years, keep it up!
If you trust yourself, you have ticked off fighting with willpower. Forget willpower, forget habits. Give your confidence a chance. The decision has been made and you do what you choose. Combine this trust with a regular point in time or triggering event of your choice, as recommended in the study (“after breakfast” / “every Monday, Wednesday and Friday”) so that you do not forget your decision. And done.
Habits know a “but” – goals do not
In practice, this idea is easy to explain: A woman resolves to walk 10,000 steps every day for the New Year. Classic New Years resolution. The formulation is good and precise: “10,000 steps every day” definitely sounds more concrete than “I want to move more”.
The Internet would say: “Make a habit out of it, then it’s very easy, it works by itself.” That just definitely doesn’t work if we want to believe that the body will do the steps by itself. Because suddenly it’s pouring down outside. Or the end of the working day is delayed. A new season starts on Netflix. There are many reasons.
Habits know a but. Don’t aim.
Let’s stick with the woman with her plan. She wants to run 10,000 steps every day. It will be easier for her when she has a goal: She wants to walk 10,000 steps a day in order to be fit for her first hiking vacation. Anyone who has ever had to wear new hiking boots in a flat country city knows the motivation boost: You run. Or you can buy blister plasters.
Such goals are very strong. They don’t challenge willpower, because the decision of what to do has been made beforehand. Goals and self-confidence don’t wrestle with your weaker self. A goal only needs one thing: trust.