“I’m giving up alcohol for a month”.
“I’m doing Movember”.
I’m doing this for 30 days, I’m doing that for 30 days, it’s enough to drive you crazy right?
Today I want to tell you why I’ve got a newfound interest in this period, and why it it’s helpful for when you’re breaking habits.
The 21 Day Habit Myth
You’ve heard it before. A habit takes 21 days to form. It’s a round number isn’t it? Quite digestible. I did some reading however, and it’s not that clear cut.
In the book Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t and How to Make Any Change Stick Jeremy Dean stresses that the number is arbitrary. Other factors such as: type of habit, your conditioning, the triggers around you, and your level of self-belief all play a part.
In fact, one study out of the University College London, determined via 96 participants that the ideal amount of time is 66 days.
Credit: Making Habits, Jermy Dean
Of course, this didn’t really take into account types of habits either, it simply averaged it out across a range of behaviour changes.
So how is this going to help you?
Because while the number is arbitrary, we can get a great sense of whether we want to keep or stick to a habit after 30 days – and I’ll tell you how I did it.
The Great Zero Caffeine Experiment
I met a blogger at the World Domination Summit this year called Charles Ngo. Charles has a regular 30 day experiment thing going on, and in one of his challenges he opted to give up caffeine.
This really resonated with me. I’ve had a huge dependence on caffeine for a long time, and a shot at giving it up sounded like a great opportunity to not only improve, but see if I could break a habit.
So without much forethought, I abandoned caffeine.
I was cranky at work. I had a lot of headaches. I was definitely moody. This was a huge part of my life, and now it was being taken away.
It was an interesting mental journey to navigate. A lot of the guides out there on quitting were hippy fluff. And despite my resolve, I copped flak from people who thought it was crazy to try such a thing, and that ultimately it was crazy.
30 days arrived, and by then I could see I was over the hump. My sleep was better, my natural energy levels had increased, and while I was missing the ‘spike’ – I could see that this wellbeing would increase more gradually over time.
It turns out it did. After 60 days, I wasn’t craving it at all. My craving for the ‘spikes’ had dissipated completely, and I was really enjoying being able to get out of bed earlier and be highly functioning right out of bed. There was no grogginess.
Charles Ngo had a tougher time than me, but he’s also included some good advice in his write-up.
Two interesting things have developed out of this experiment. One, my affinity for herbal tea is now off the charts – I’m really into peppermint or lemongrass and ginger with a dash of honey. Two, this experiment has lead me to believe that while 30 days isn’t the magic number to succeed in breaking a habit, it can be a really good indicator for success – by 30 days you should know whether you’re able to succeed or not on this path.
An Approach You Can Adopt
Zen Habits blog has built on this a bit more, and broken it down into three simple steps:
1. Write down your plan.
2. Identify your triggers and replacement habits.
3. Focus on doing the replacement habits every single time the triggers happen, for about 30 days.
Without knowing this, I followed this approach myself.
Firstly, I announced my intention to quit caffeine. Secondly, I replaced coffee with herbal teas. Lastly, I stuck to this approach for 30 days and beyond and now consider myself caffeine-free.
Baby Steps Though
One of the other things Zen Habits stresses, is that you should only make one change at a time. You’re investing a lot of willpower behind this change, and trying to do too much too soon will only wear out your willpower muscle to the point of failure.
I noticed this myself when I first got the app Habit Streak Pro – I compiled a list of behaviours I wanted to change and started excitedly ticking them off each day. It didn’t work. After a week I was frustrated and deleted the app before returning it later.
Now I only stick to one habit at a time.
I use the app to keep up my meditation practice
The Next Frontier
There are a few more habits that I want to trial over this 30 day period. My personal trainer asked me to give up something a few weeks ago. I decided that it would be beer.
I’m now 21 days in and it was a subtle enough change that I’m able to stick to it. We’ll see what happens after 30 days!
Change is good. The other benefit of implementing these changes is that you might come across a keystone habit.
What’s a keystone habit? Charles Duhigg writes that:
it’s a habit that [has] the power to start a chain reaction, shifting other patterns that move through our lives. Keystone habits influence how we work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything.
In other words – once you’ve discovered one of these habits, its an easier process for implementing other changes. These habits help with “small wins”. Small wins are critical as they help with ongoing motivation (whereas inspiration, say from reading and article like this, will be fleeting).
30 Days To Change
I think it’s a great period of time, and I’ll be experimenting with this approach further. One thing I’m interested in is whether this same period of time can be implemented for forming habits. But I’ll hold off on that just for now until the beer challenge is complete.
Did you enjoy the article? Anything you want to add?
Let me know in the comments.