Sixty-Six Days: Building a Habit From Scratch

Apparently, that’s the amount of time the University College London found it takes to form a habit.

However, that number can range anywhere from a mere 18 days to as long as 254. According to their study, each individual selected a “self chosen-health promoting dietary or activity behaviour in response to a once-daily cue …”. Once this action became automated enough, then it was deemed to have become habituated.

According to the American Journal of Psychology, a habit is:

[a way] of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through previous repetition of a mental experience.

A habit is formed when you condition yourself to repeat a certain action enough times that it becomes a second nature. It could also be not doing something, like forgetting to lock the door on the way out or neglecting to put the milk back in the fridge after having a bowl of cereal. Do it enough, and it becomes hard to reverse that behavior or change it to another. 

That’s what we could call a bad habit, something that we don’t want happening often. In order to eliminate a bad habit, we have to replace it with a good habit, something that we want to happen often.

The more good habits that we practice, the better. Once successfully made, they’re like an automated script on a computer — one that takes no effort to run, yet makes your life much easier. They don’t require any additional thought when they’re in place. However, they do take quite a bit of effort to implement. 

When we’re young, it is far easier to form these instincts. A simple dessert for putting your dishes in the sink or sticker for every homework assignment turned in. It all goes downhill from there.

As we grow, these incentives start adapting to what we want in life. As teenagers, it might be gas money or a better Christmas present. Even further on, it might be happiness or personal satisfaction that’s required to start doing something on our own. These incentives seem to move up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as we age, which is why it gets harder to form habits. On top of that, when there isn’t anyone else offering a reward to you, self-control comes into play, bringing a whole new level of difficulty to form habits.

Marshmello performing live at The Pageant

Bear with me as I take an aside for a minute.

Video games are great. They’re essentially an interactive novel, simultaneously allowing the player to witness the story the designers are trying to tell and be a part of it. People find them hard to put down because every time they finish off a boss, complete a mission or beat a game, they’re getting rewarded in the virtual world — simultaneously, those feel-good chemicals are being released in the brain.

However, video games can be finished in a matter of hours, and real life takes so much more time. In a world where we’re constantly craving instant gratification and reward, it’s hard to see the bigger picture and work towards achieving something bigger. It might not seem like a priority to do the small things in life, like taking out the trash, when we’re more worried about the paychecks and Amazon packages.

Fortunately, the concept of turning reality into a video game, or gamifying your life, has slowly started to become more popular. Apps such as Habitica set up a virtual environment, complete with quests, equipment and guilds. When you complete an action in real life, such as taking out the trash or sending in that homework assignment, you get in-game rewards such as experience and gold. Save enough gold and you can buy better equipment for your character and achieve higher levels. Find friends in real life to tackle quests for rewards and hold each other accountable. But here’s a fair warning: it takes a bit of self-control to be able to use such an app successfully.

Without a higher-up to check whether you’ve actually done the task, there’s a clear opportunity for someone to abuse the app. Spamming the buttons allows you to level really fast and get a bunch of gold, but that’s not the point. If you want to improve yourself, Habitica is a great tool to use. If you’re willing to keep yourself on a leash, then it works as an amazing supplement to forming habits. 

It’s amazing that we’re able to take a flaw of our minds and use it to create something positive out of it.

As I take 2017 as a year to reconstruct my mind, I will also take it to rebuild my habits and body. Every other week, I will publish a habit that I have attempted to form and how it has improved my life. UCL, at the end of their post, gives their best piece of advice:

stay strong.

66 days is only their best estimation on how long the actual process of habit formation takes, but they also state that “it’s unwise to attempt to assign a number to [the process]”. There are so many variables based on the person and action that it’s impossible there’s a golden amount of time it takes for this to happen.

As I take 2017 as a year to reconstruct my mind, I will also take it to reconstruct my body. Every other week, I will publish a habit that I have been forming and how it has improved my life. First up is mornings, bedtimes and Z’s. I also challenge you, the reader, to set one habit that you want to add to your life and start doing it daily.

Thanks for reading.


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