The easiest habit to change is someone else’s
I laughed out loud when I encountered the saying “The easiest habit to change is someone else’s”. Isn’t it so true? It’s so much easier to tell someone else what they should do than to change our own behaviours.
Confession: I have a bad habit of showing up just-on-time or a little late. This is generally preceded by my running around at the last minute, cramming in one more chore or finishing up one last email or, or, or…instead of calmly leaving the house with a few minutes to spare. I’ve been trying to change this bad habit for years. Recently, I decided enough was enough and I was going to make a concerted effort to break my last-minute habit and form a new habit of punctuality.
How long does it take to form or break a habit?
There is almost as much advice out there on how to form new habits as there are fad diets. Some claim it takes a mere 21 days, others say 30 days, while some suggest a lifetime. The answer seems to lie in how motivated we are to change. Some people can quit smoking cold turkey in just one day, while others struggle to quit repeatedly.
Habit formation has been studied by social psychologists since the 1960s. The research shows new habits can be formed in as little as a few weeks, but can take as long as months or years. Unsurprisingly, “easy” new habits like “drinking a glass of water before every meal” are relatively quick to adopt into habit, but habits that have formed over a long time, such as smoking, typically take a lot longer to break.
Since I was hoping to fix my punctuality problem as quickly as possible, I was dismayed by the disparate data on habit formation. But the takeaway from my research is this: Everyone is different and forming new habits is about gradual self-improvement.
Mindfulness is the key to change
What scientific research does agree on is any real change begins with mindfulness. Our habits are formed over many repetitions until they become mindless and require little conscious awareness from us. Habits can be viewed as behaviours on autopilot.
When we choose to form a new habit (or to break an old one), behavioural
psychology suggests we must be mindful of the habit and ask ourselves why we wish to adopt (or break) it? By consciously probing our intentions, we move away from mindlessness towards mindfulness, and start to gain insight into our motivations.
So, I considered why I wanted to change my habit of showing up at appointments just-in-time (and frequently late). I considered all the “negatives” I wanted to eliminate (stress from rushing around at the last minute, having to apologize if I arrive late, making a poor impression, being disrespectful of others’ time). Then I considered the positives I wished to gain by cultivating punctuality (less anxiety about unforeseen delays like traffic, arriving calm and collected, being socially responsible).
Best practices for habit cultivation:
“Habits are formed by the repetition of particular acts. They are strengthened by an increase in the number of repeated acts. Habits are also weakened and broken, and contrary habits are formed by the repetition of contrary acts.” – Mortimer J. Adler, Author
Cultivating habits is not a mysterious process, but one that requires reinforcement through repetition. Change experts say goal setting is important because they set us in a mindful direction, but goals are not enough. After a goal is identified, we need to design a better system in order to improve our results.
Here are some tips for revamping habits:
- Identify the habit you wish to form and think carefully on why you want it. This initial step is vital to sticking to your new habit because you are being conscious and deliberate about change.
- Start with an incredibly small habit. Make it so easy you can’t say no. Willpower is like a muscle that gets stronger with use (e.g. instead of “I will never be late again”, I started with “I will show up 5 minutes early to my appointments this week.”) Small changes are easy to dismiss but actually compound over time.
- Increase your habit in small ways. As you build up, break big habits into small, specific chunks.
- When you slip, get back on track. Even top performers make mistakes, but they get back on track quickly – the trick is not to be perfect but to be persistent. Minor slipups don’t change your overall habit.
- Stick to a sustainable pace and be patient. Being patient with yourself is important. It is part of self-compassion which leads to better outcomes. If you find your pace of change too fast, readjust until you experience success again and keep going.
- Positive feedback loop. Notice and celebrate small achievements. Positivity provides good reinforcement to continue your new habit.
In my case, I knew I needed to improve my punctuality system. I committed to small changes: no last-minute chores (e.g. dishes or quick call) and leave 5 minutes ahead of what Google Maps says. So far this week I’ve managed to be a few minutes early to all my appointments except for one. I am counting my wins and mentally high fiving myself. I will continue to cultivate this habit one week at a time until punctuality becomes second nature.
Clear, James: Atomic Habits. Avery Press, 2018.
Wiley is a long-time North Vancouver resident. She works as a technical writer and is the current newsletter editor for the North Shore Writers’ Association. She spends her free time feeding her twin passions of creative writing and hiking. She recently discovered a potential third passion - the pottery studio at the Delbrook Community Recreation Centre.