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What Is A Habit?

nun-on-skateboardIf I asked you what is the only man-made object visible from space, what would your answer be?

Most people confidently reply that it’s the Great Wall of China. I have heard this many, many times. In fact I used to play in quiz leagues in my twenties and I have even heard it asked as a quiz question on several occasions.

The fact is, it’s complete nonsense.

Think about it for a moment. The Great Wall of China is never more than about 30 feet wide, so that’s significantly less than a normal four lane highway. Yes it’s thousands of miles long, but so is Route 66 and nobody claims you can see that from Space.

Suggesting a wall can be seen from Space (without a telescope I hasten to add) makes about as much sense as saying if I drop a human hair off the top of the Empire State Building I can spot it as it lands on the sidewalk. No jokes about not  being able to see mine when they are still on my head please.

I was reading a post over at PlugIn ID recently that talked about how long it takes to form a habit. I’m pretty sure if you lined all the words up end to end that have been typed on forming habits, they’d be longer than the Great Wall of China and visible from Space.

Common theory seems to suggest it takes anything from 21 to 30 days to form a new habit. Like most people I presumed this was true when I first read it in Stephen Covey’s ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ because I had no reason to think otherwise.

However, that was 5 or 6 years ago. Since then I’ve seen far too many people do things for a lot longer than 30 days and not been able to maintain them, to retain that belief.

Let me explain what I mean. If you went to the gym every day for a month or even two or three months, that would suggest you have developed a new habit. Let’s suppose you then get the flu. I’m talking the real flu here, not a heavy cold some people insist is the flu, and you’re laid low for two weeks.

On recovering you really struggle to motivate yourself to start working out again because your energy levels are still subdued and before you know it you haven’t been for a month. This is a very common scenario and often at that point people will quit. They wont actually say to themselves they are quitting, but before they know it six months have passed by and they haven’t returned to the gym.

This cycle of behavior gets replicated by some people many times during their lives with attempts to quit smoking, get fit, lose weight, stop drinking etc.

The problem is, they never fully developed a habit or ritual. Going to the gym was something that had to be planned and thought through, not something that was instinctive like habits are.

Not only that, but what does 21 days mean? If I was doing something for 4 hours a day for 21 days it would be a world apart from doing something for 5 minutes a day over the same period.

Habits are formed by thinking new thoughts and forming new pathways in the brain. Therefore, the more you think that thought and/or perform that action the quicker you build up the pathway and if relevant,  create the muscle memory to support it.

As I was reading the responses from Glen telling me I was wrong I was thinking to myself:

“Wow he’s getting really defensive and seems to be taking this personally. He’s pouring all his energy into defending his position rather than opening up the debate and admitting he could be wrong”

The reason why myths like The Great Wall of China being visible from space are perpetuated is because people are invested in them. Nobody likes to admit they could be wrong and when we hear things from multiple sources over extended periods of time we quite naturally assume they must be true.

I must have heard the ’21 Days’ thing 100 times or more and the only thing that has me questioning its veracity is overwhelming contrary evidence when working with clients. Otherwise I feel sure that I’d still think the same thing.

As this debate was going on I set off to do some research to prove my point. I have been reading a lot of books on subjects similar to this recently as I’ve been researching ‘How To Be Rich and Happy’, so I had enough material to go at.

I found some research from 50 years ago that seemed to support the 21 day theory but it was less than convincing and the science has moved on a long way since then. I wondered if that was the original source for the likes of Stephen Covey because I couldn’t find anything else.

Then all of a sudden a thought hit me. Wasn’t I doing exactly what I was accusing poor old Glen of doing? Wasn’t I as invested in my belief as he was in his? And wasn’t I likely to filter out anything that contradicted my belief? Not only that, but how the hell did I know what he was thinking? I frequently tell people to try and avoid reading too much into e-mails and blog comments where so much of the communication is missing.

It was then I stopped and said to myself “OK Mr. Life Coach prove yourself wrong, find evidence that says the 21 day thing is true and if you can, and then admit it”

I spent a while digging through articles and books and the honest answer is I couldn’t find anything conclusive one way or the other. I found some very recent work done at MIT using thermal imaging on mice that seemed to point towards habits taking anything from 10 to 40 days. But there was nothing on humans that was anything other than vague and tangential.

Stephen from Rat Race Trap mentioned in the comments that he’d read it was 21 to 40 days to form new habits, but that it took a lot longer than that for old habits to whither and die.

Now it was starting to make sense to me. This fitted in with my experience with clients. Maybe a new habit was formed in many cases, but an older habit was still in place that was stronger and more well-defined. That would explain why people stop going to the gym because they have a stronger habit of wanting to lounge around in front of the TV calling seductively to them.

This then prompted me to wonder, what the hell is a habit anyway? If we have a habit that doesn’t compel us to act, can it really be called a habit. Isn’t it just a thought? Surely habits operate at an unconscious level?

This whole situation was a brilliant example of two people being invested in an idea and setting out to prove they were right, rather than getting to the truth of the matter.

I still don’t have a definitive answer and maybe there isn’t one, but it’s been fun trying to work it out. I’d love to hear about any experiences you have or material you can point me towards. In fact, if you think I’m wrong tell me and I’m happy to read what you have to say with an open-mind. Just don’t try telling me you can see the Great Wall of China from Space because I’m too heavily invested in believing that’s a load of bollocks.


45 comments to What Is A Habit?

  • Thanks for taking on this bit of personal development mythology. I think some habits can be formed in seconds. Some alcoholics say that when they took their first drink, they immediately felt they were hooked. And sometimes in NLP change work, a tiny reframe or little different way of representing things and a habit is changed forever.

    It’s certainly an interesting topic within the field of personal change, but definitely not simply a matter of number of days. There are more variables than that.

    Duffs last blog post..Emotional Bodybuilding and the Cultivation of Inflation

  • I too went searching for the research to prove or disprove the 21 days for a habit. And achieved a similar result: inconclusive.

    In my change work (both with myself and others) building a new habit can take considerably less that 21 days. It can also take a considerably longer time.

    I know a few of the keys to making them stick, as I think the number of days you do a specific task is maybe 10% of the result. More powerful in developing a habit is your thinking and beliefs about the habit, your emotional response when you start the habit each day, and your emotional response when you finish the habit.

    Think about a casino. All those people sitting at the poker machines are playing habitually. Quite likely most of them were not doing that habit for 21 days in a row…

    Another idea for you to consider: phobias. One trial learning that causes behaviours to habitually happen, every singe time.

    Michael Vanderdonks last blog post..Accept the events you cannot control

  • Hmm,

    I’m just about to go to sleep, so probably not the best time to comment, but I am a little “confused” by this post.

    You say this:

    “Wasn’t I doing exactly what I was accusing poor old Glen of doing? Wasn’t I as invested in my belief as he was in his? And wasn’t I likely to filter out anything that contradicted my belief?”

    And admit you haven’t found anything substantial to support the argument, but nor do I believe your experiences have proved anything otherwise.

    I don’t think you have watched clients do the same thing for 21 days (in a row) and not noticed a change in them. The examples you gave originally were certainly not about doing things in daily succession and unless you were with them, you have no proof that this is the case. I may be wrong of course, and if I am, so be it.

    To be honest though, I don’t think any of this matters because 1) I really don’t want to get into a big debate about this again and 2) I don’t think anyone has a really good definition of what a habit is.

    When I was in SA I would have a protein shake the minute I got home from work, every day for months. I wouldn’t think about it, it was something I would just automatically do. Then I got hepatitis and spent just over a week in hospital, and on returning home, completely stopped that routine.

    I think that just because I stopped doing it, it doesn’t mean at the time it wasn’t habitual.

    I did something every day for months on auto-pilot and after a week of absence, I completely stopped doing it, I didn’t even realise I had stopped till a few weeks later.

    Even if you get up every single day at 5am for years, you can change that when you have to get up at 3am to get a taxi to the airport for your morning flight. Or when you’ve gotten over your social phobia and have a night out for the first timm in years, and end up sleeping in ;)

    Did you lose the habit? Was it a habit in the first place? Was it just…whatever it is?

    I actually have no idea. I believe that something is habitual when you do it on auto-pilot and the 21 day “rule” applies well to me and my experiences. And, makes scientific sense based on new pathways and connections being formed.

    Those habits can disappear pretty easily though as well. It doesn’t mean they are weak as I believe strong habits can stop quickly if you work on them.

    Glen Allsopps last blog post..7 Days of Pure Self-Discipline – You In?

  • I’m not sure of the behind-the-scenes stuff but think that a habit can be formed and unformed just as quickly. If you’re present and focused on why you perform certain things (like brushing your teeth with one hand or the other), and ask ‘why’, I believe the most popular answer to that question will be ‘it’s always been done that way’.

    This may be less about the habit than the habit itself – we’re creatures of familiarity and resort to the familiar each time we can – for simplicity or speed’s sake.

    Take the aforementioned teeth brushing. I can brush my teeth (to my satisfaction) within 60 seconds with my right hand. But I have been using my left hand recently, and working through the awkwardness. I haven’t got it to 60 seconds yet BUT am conscious of forming new neural pathways. I do this because I am trying to reduce my reliance on my right hand – It’s led me to be more proficient with my left at tasks like opening doors, boxing (equal preference for which hand to lead with), etc. It’s been a few months now so I couldn’t tell you how long it’s taken – I wonder when 90 seconds (LH brushing) x 2 times per day x XXX = 21 days?

    Have I broken the ‘habit’ (right-hand brushing)? No, but I have introduced a new one that with a little more time will feel just as comfortable/right. My goal is to be able to be flexible in everything I do, whether it be defending my position or having an open mind to explore other positions, just like you did in your research, Tim!

    Great article :-)

  • [...] When Is A Habit Not A Habit? (No Ratings Yet)  Loading … Insider tips to your inbox.Join thousands of weeklyreaders. [...]

  • You sometimes lose me with your long posts Tim.

    Not today, though. I read every word, and loved it!

    Of course, both you and Glen are wrong about habits. I have the only right answer… the only way to truly form a habit involves a dead cat, three candles, an umbrella, a wheelbarrow, and a Chinese vase.

    No, I won’t listen to your stories of how you formed a habit without involving a wheelbarrow. That’s just nonsensical anecdotal evidence. Show me real scientific research!

    Okay, I lost myself a bit. Where was I going with this comment…

    Oh yeah! Thanks for the reminder to keep open-minded. Just the other day, I caught myself being a close-minded bigot, dismissing an idea before even thinking it through. Open-mindedness is trickier than we think.

    Anyways, thanks again for a great post!

    Vlad Dolezals last blog post..The Secret of Super-effective People – Weekly Review

  • I believe the most popular answer to that question will be ‘it’s always been done that way’.

  • I love the post, and definately the question: What is a habit really?

    If a habit is just a compulsive, triggered thought that leads to some impactful action, then any regular thinking could be called a habit. They are only habits when we notice it, there’s hundreds of other thoughts that cause other actions that we are even more unaware of. Breathing, pumping blood, regulating hormones, digesting food, etc.

    Habit is just a simple word for the stimulus/response mechanism in humans, based on behavioral imprint. We put far too much weight in what our habits are, and not enough in changing the core fundamentals of who we are. If we were more disciplined we wouldn’t need a habit of going to the gym. If we were more inspired, we wouldn’t need a habit of doing work. If we were more compassionate, we wouldn’t need the habit of donating to charity. But, changing habits allow us to build those characteristics.

    Aah. It’s a circle!

    In the end, the search for truth is more important than being right. Find out what works and what doesn’t.

  • When you say perhaps you did not find a difinitive answer because one does not exist, I believe you’re right. I quit smoking for 8 years, 8! And started again. As for habits, we’re individual, yes? Most people tend to believe that if a thing is in print or on the news, it must be accurate, but consider how many studies and conclusions are proven wrong, right, wrong by the next study that comes along.

    Pfffft! And yes, what precisely is a habit? Perhaps it is nothing more than a routine, a personal preference.

    This is the most honest and thought-provoking thing I’ve read in a while! So, thank you.


  • I would say that a “habit” is a social construct. It represents something being done with regularity. Physical and mental changes could take place over a duration of time when the habit is continued, which makes it easier to keep up with, but it is still the person’s daily choice to continue it, unless there is an addiction of some sort(addiction representing something like dopamine being released during the activity, making it like using a drug).

    Like Andrew brought up above, the creation of neural pathways would be an example of how a regular activity can cause physical changes that make it easier to perform and continue the next time around.

    I looked up a couple of research papers on habits, but they were referring to them like “such activation contributes to the habit-forming actions of these drugs”, representing them as addictions.

    Either a habit is labeled as such because it results in a physical change in your body, or it is a perception or idea used as motivation or foundation to continue an activity that is beneficial to you.

    Armen Shirvanians last blog post..Why Duplicity Doesn’t Work Well

  • It’s great to read a post that is not “5 steps to…” “How to…” but rather “let’s investigate”. I have no clue on the question except that I tend to do sport for 4 to 6 month and then stop for the same period of time. Never got into a steady habit. I wish you luck in your search for answers and will follow this blog from now on :)

    Joannas last blog post..p1000483.jpg

  • I think this is a great post to question what so many take to be gospel. There’s two important points I see that your post raises, Tim.

    1. Whatever anyone of us does we all do, just in varying degrees. There is nothing any one of us does, that all of us do not do in some lesser or greater degree.

    2. Time is just a framework. It’s one way of slicing up and perceiving life or something else that is too big for us to understand holistically in a glance.

    So you could equally pick another framework, to see the same issue through, that would make sense, but the conclusion would be different.

    Time in itself means nothing. Time doesn’t heal, it’s just that there are certain steps in the process to healing or in this case changing a habit. And as our most common framework to look through the world is chronologically, people believe it is time that heals.

    The 21 days or 30 days to change is really about the speed the Individual perceiving is able or comfortable at making a change.

    Rob McPhillipss last blog post..Personal Development vs Following Your Bliss

  • @ Duff – Have you read ‘How We Decide’? It covers some of this stuff in depth. It also looks at people with addictions and the new belief that their brains are physically different to other people. That their Anterior Cingular Cortex has a reduced number dopamine receptors resulting in the likelihood of repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

    @ Michael – Brilliant point out the beliefs we hold too. That is very relevant to the discussion!

    @ Glen – Exactly! I didn’t disprove what you said, nor did I prove what I said. You’re right of course, I have no idea if clients were lying to me, maybe they were, but I doubt it. It wouldn’t make much sense after all, they are paying me.

    I actually love the debate because it’s how I learn. I have shifted my position somewhat from when I first responded to you and that’s very cool by my way of thinking because it means I have learned something.

    @ Andrew – Cool attitude and that’s a interesting experiment. Are you documenting it?

    @ Vlad – You’re right on the open-minded thing, it is very tricky indeed. You’re wrong about the wheelbarrow though because a lawn mower does much the same job in my experience.

    @ Ferrite – You have been very busy on my blog in your different guises the last 24 hours. Have you got a job lot of magnets to get rid of? ;-)

    @ Eric – Good description and I was kinda thinking the same thing, that a habit has to be in some way at an unconscious level. Not sure if we’ll get to the ultimate truth, but we’ll give it our best shot ;-)

    @ Karen – You’re welcome and thanks for commenting. And maybe you’re right maybe one persons habit is anothers task?

    @ Armen – Thanks for looking this stuff and it’s interesting that nobody here has found anything conclusive. Yet even as I type I can guarantee somebody is saying to somebody somewhere. “It takes 21 days to form a habit!”

    @ Joanna – Thanks a lot. And don’t worry you won’t find too many list posts here! Blogs like that offer little value to me personally although I guess some may like them. You have to stir things up a bit from time to time to make lasting beneficial change imho.

    @ Rob – That is another excellent point about time. I guess it’s more of a label for people to feel comfortable with. The first point I’m going to have to give some thought to. On the surface I can’t think of anything that contradicts it I must say. Interesting.

  • I don’t have a definitive answer. But what keeps knawing at me about all this is all the talk about length of time and physical actions (and some talk of neural pathways and thoughts, sure)……

    But what about the why?

    The guy who goes back to watching TV instead of the gym. Does he do it *just* because it’s a habit? Or is there something more invested there. Perhaps he actually has a fear of working out and losing weight and then handling being more attractive. Maybe it’s more deep-seated than just simply a choice between going to the gym and watching TV.

    You’ve definitely given me plenty of food for thought for today though.

    All the best!
    P.S. All that ‘habit’ stuff….tied with the picture….now has the song “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria” from the Sound of Music running through my head. And I’d just like to say, “Thanks, Tim. Yeah. Thanks a lot for THAT.” ha ;-)

    Deb Owens last blog post..nobody expects the spanish inquisition (releasing expectations)

  • Really interesting post here…I’ve never thought about habits like that before and it’s quite interesting. Love the picture you posted too. Perfect! :)

    Positively Presents last blog post..who’s afraid of the big, bad past?

  • Oh, it all just depends. When I got my iPhone I got into the habit of checking it 80 zillion times a day within the first 24 hours, probably because it was so little effort/cost for a nice little reward.

    In general, I think habits can be formed in far less than 21 days. There have been habits that took me a couple of days to instill/break in my children that will last them a lifetime (I hope).

    On the flip side, I think there are some things that might never become an automatic habit and will always take conscious effort. And some habits that will never be fully broken, only controlled.

    Actually, typing this, I realize I’m not even really sure what is a habit, what is an addiction, what is just crap you gotta do. I mean, waking up at 6.30 every morning to change my kid’s smelly diaper. Is that a habit? I don’t think so, I put that in the crap I gotta do pile.

    Tracys last blog post..Paying the Piper

  • I think it’s kind of funny that most people, myself included, have realised we have no idea what a habit is.

    Well said Tracy:

    I realize I’m not even really sure what is a habit, what is an addiction, what is just crap you gotta do

    Ah, the joys of self improvement ;)

    Glen Allsopps last blog post..How I Left the Rat Race (And You Can Too)

  • I’m trying to break a habit right now! I quit smoking today, and it’s killing me. I honestly don’t remember how quickly I got into the habit of smoking but I’m pretty sure it was less than 21 days.

    chicago offices last blog post..Launch of our new blog

  • Hi Tim~

    I really enjoyed this post. Truthfully, I have no idea how long it takes to form a habit. I haven’t done any research so I don’t have anything useful to add to that conversation (although I suspect it’s different for different people.)

    What I loved about this was the point about seeking evidence to prove you’re right and filtering out information that may prove you’re wrong. I think mental habits are just as crucial as physical habits–sometimes, even more important since your thoughts dictate what you do.

    I know I have done this before (I admit it…it feels pretty sweet to be right); it’s always inspiring to see someone else come to this conclusion. Motivates me to keep questioning my own similar tendencies.


    Loris last blog post..How to Let Go and Embrace an Uncertain Future

  • [...] A nice web master placed an observative post today on When Is A Habit Not A Habit? | Life Coach Blog: The Discomfort Zone :Here’s a quick excerptThis cycle of behavior gets replicated by some people many times during their lives with attempts to quit smoking, get fit, lose weight, stop drinking etc. The problem is, they never fully developed a habit or ritual. … [...]

  • A habit is the behavioural aspect of what you are. We do what we do because it is a snapshot of what we are at this moment in time.

    If you have trouble with some aspect of your behaviour, or changing it, it is because your mental operating system is not up to speed with your aspirations.

    It would be more efficient to get congruent and wholly aligned with the person that you want to be in your own head first. Then the behavioural aspects will fall into line.

    To try to change your behaviour first is much more difficult.

    Rob McPhillipss last blog post..Personal Development vs Following Your Bliss

  • Laurie

    So do I have a habit of brushing my teeth everyday or is it that I just don’t like the way dirty teeth feel?

    I’m with you, I’m not sure what is a REAL habit. I have been working out every weekday. I meet a friend. You would think it would be a habit by not but to be honest, if I weren’t meeting the friend, I wouldn’t be there. I need the accountability partner.

    I think the first step is to define what a real habit is. Is it just a behavior or is there something that has to go on in the brain as well. Almost like a reflex arc or something. Just some thoughts.

  • Maureen

    I know from reading Dr Jeffrey Schwartz that there are several things linked to repeated behavior a.k.a. a habit. For a new behavior to be created takes as long as the brain takes to create the new neural network. This can be as short as a second. What takes longer is entrenching the new habit into a solid neural network.
    It is almost impossible to eliminate a behavior that is entrenched in our neural network but it is much easier to create a new behavior to replace the old one. This is because there is a huge emotional attachment to the old behavior. So its not just a matter of replacing the habit there must be an emotional attachment for it to stick. When you try to replace the behavior with a new one the brain will actually “fire up” all sorts of protests to changing what has already existed: the safe and trusted way. This can be seen with an MRI.
    I read in someone else’s blog (my apologies since I can’t remember who I read it from) about replacing old habits and it followed along the lines of SMART goals but there were added neuroplastic features. For example creating a ritual around doing it, making the ritual have ALL your senses involved when doing the new habit, writing a journal about the changes, re-reading what your wrote and reading new material about it, are among a few of the suggested tactics.
    I also read some work done by Dr Schwartz and Stephanie West-Allen on “T-notes” which were very effective.
    So its a matter of out-smarting the brain UNTIL the old habit/behavior is “weeded out” of the brain.
    I think that is a very individualistic time line as well. Since our brains are all unique would it not make sense that there is no specific amount of time to replace a habit?

  • [...] 2, 2009 · No Comments Spurred on by a comment from Tim Brownson on his blog topic When is a habit not a habit, I decided to document & share my thoughts on reprogramming my brain through the focused, [...]

  • @ Deb – Yeh another good point and I’m starting to get all confused ;-)

    @ Tracy – There are definite distinction between habits and addictions. Latest research on addictions has suggested there are a reduced number of dopamine receptors in the brain. It certainly is one huge gray area though, a bit like my brain.

    @ Glen – Have you got any more cans of worms you want opening? ;-)

    @ Lori – We ALL do that, as long as we can recognize we do it unconsciously and step in at a conscious level from time to time we should ba able to limit the damage though.

    @ Rob – Definitely agree with that. It is hard to change habits of you don’t know why you’re changing them or who you are as a person. That’s why I spend so much time round values with clients.

    @ Laurie – Pop back in 10 years and let us know how the work outs are going will you? I have been going to the guym regularly about 3 or 4 times per week for 10 years and it’s still an effort for me. It’s definitely doesn’t feel like a habit because each trip requires conscious effort and a whiney conversation inside my own head.

    @ Maureen – Good stuff and thanks for that. Do you have any links I’d like to read more?

  • @ Chicago Office – Gotta change that language. If you believe it’s gonna kill you to give up you’ll find it incredibly difficult. The language is critical in changing your beliefs.

    You can do it if you know what your reasons are and focus on those.

  • Tim, thanks for the stimulation re: documenting my experiment. Not sure if you’ll allow cross-posting, if you do, here it is


  • Stuff you can read:
    1. Dr Jeffrey Schwartz’s/Sharon Begley’s book: The Mind and The Brain. He talks a lot about OCD but the first part of the book explains how the behavior gets “locked” in. And he has a four step method for removing behaviour. I figure if it can get someone off of medication for OCD it’s gotta work for habits.

    2. Dr Schwartz and Stephanie West-Allen’s article: Mind Hygeine

    3. Norman Doidge’s book: The Brain That Changes Itself

    4. John Medina’s book: 12 Brain Rules

    These all talk about habits/behaviour and the research supporting the ideas.
    I am embarrassed to admit I cannot find the blog that I copied down the 10 Rules to Goal making. I only subscribe to three blogs and I could send them for you. I scrounged around and could not find where I got it from. I can send the list to you privately but I don’t feel comfortable sharing what I copied into my journal, with your readership until I can find where I got it from.

    Maureens last blog post..The Smell of Purple

  • This is a fascinating post and fits right in with a book I am reading by a science journalist who has just published a book about how the American Food Industry (was the American Tobacco Industry) addicts 60% of American eaters into their foods they produce and then how to get out of these habits and addictions – based on tons of research about rewards and the brain…

    The End of Overeating by David Kessler

    It includes some information about why in Germany American Food Industries’ ads are considered mind control and why there are no Happy Meals and Rewards at German MacDonald s.

    He certainly documents a ton of research studies from around the world…and it makes sense..

    Made me think – this is good

    Patricias last blog post..And The Winner Is!

  • @ Andrew – No worries at all.

    @ Maureen – Brilliant stuff and thanks for taking the time to do that. Feel free to e-mail me that would be great and you have my e-mail.

    @ Patricia – That doesn’t surprise me at all. It concerns me, but I don’t think most big food manufacturers and suppliers really care that much about the net effect of their products on the nations health. And you’re right, thinking is good ;-)

  • Ah no Tim I don’t have your email. I searched everywhere on your site and could not find it. Send it to me and I will email you this document I have with the 10 steps.
    Also someone mentioned they were a bit hazy about what the difference between and addiction and a habit. Norman Doidges book spends a whole chapter on that and by the time you finished reading it it’s quite clear what an addiction is and how it is different than a habit.
    The “crap you just gotta do” gets stored in a different part of the brain. I think it is the amygdala – can’t remember. It would be a nightmare if we had to think out everything we did before we did it.
    So we store that repetitive stuff in our amygdala.

    Maureens last blog post..The Smell of Purple

  • Its all about the dopamine! Pleasure+repetition+time= my new habit.

    I have found it very difficult to break a habit without coupling it to some real pain. I know it sounds Tony Robbins-ish, but my new path has no chance until there is a rabid gorilla sitting in the middle of the old one.

    Vlad, Tim, the secret ingredient is the tire iron. I know it is easy to think that the wheelbarrow or the lawnmower is the key, but the tire iron makes it all come together….

  • The missing piece in this discussion is whether the client believes that new habits can be formed in 21 days. A new habit is not something that can never be stopped. Instead it is an action that can be done mechanically without much effort. This is something that can easily occur within 21 days. However, I think the 21 day countdown does not start until the client believes that the behavior will become a habit.

  • Tim, there is some pretty sound science in how long it takes to form the new connections and make them strong enough to easily go down again. However, people are missing the point.

    For instance say you walk every morning and you take the same path. Say you do this for years. Just like driving your commuting route, it will become almost automatic and you can do it on autopilot without consciously thinking about it.

    Then one day you decide you are going to establish a “new habit”. So you walk out your door and you have to consciously think about doing something different. Every day you walk out the door now, you have to think about going on your new route, but each day it becomes easier and more automatic and requires less conscious thought.

    After about a month it is pretty easy. The problem is that your old route is still burned into your brain and it is burned in stronger. Your advantage on your new route is the recent stimulation of it. If you slip up and go on your old route even one day, you have just fired up the connections again and they are much, much stronger than your new route.

    Those old connections do not die easily and this can be seen in modern brain research. Furthermore it is common experience. Just ask people how hard it is to kill old habits? Very, very hard. The best way is to replace it with a new habit. So when your brain gets to the fork in the road it can choose a different path. But the old habit remains there waiting to rear it’s ugly head.

    So when you walk out the door you can go two directions. You have strong connections both ways and unless you stay committed to your new one for quite some time, the old one will come back easily.

    I don’t think this stuff is that hard to figure out. It’s not all that confusing if you ask me.

    Stephen – Rat Race Traps last blog post..Living Now – Part I

  • @ Maureen – I really want to check that out and will be off to Amazon in a moment!

    @ Mike – I like that, it’s all about the dopamine!

    @ Hugh – Yeh, good point. Client belief is incredibly important, thanks for rasiing that point.

    @ Stephen – I think the confusion comes in when the blurring between addictions and habits comes into play. I feel sure you have read ‘How We Decide’ and how that talks about the latest brain research showing differences in the wiring of the brain for people that easily slip into addiction.

    Slipping back into a habit of biting finger nails after 6 months is probably less likely than a crack addict slipping back.

    I agree with your analogy, although in time you do forget the old path exists, it’s just the length of time that varies.

    I know people that quit smoking and the following day could not bear the thought of ever smoking again – my mum is a great example. She went from 50 a day to nothing and said she never even considered it. I also know people that 20 years after the fact still yearn for a cigarette. My dad smoked 80 a day in the trenches of WW2!!! He quit a few years later, yet until he died he could have the occasional cigarette or cigar once per month or so and never went back to smoking regularly. What happened to his stronger path?

    I do think this whole area is incredibly murky and usually when I think something is dead obvious, is the time when I’m most likely to be wrong ;-)

  • Tim, you use your mom as an example. OK, but this is an exception and not typical. I know a hell of lot more people who struggle with quitting and continuing to have cravings than those that quit on a dime and never want another. Further there is a difference between strong cravings that may have a biological basis and something that is just a habit.

    But that brings up a perfect point. When I write something I am not intending it to be categorical. If the rule before we said anything was it had to apply to everyone in every situation we would be quiet.

    Secondly I don’t think we should have to constantly qualify everything we say. People are always nit-picking everything apart. If we want to be that way we might as well all just shut up and that includes you. Your advice is worthless then because I will find counter examples.

    Can we please get back to talking about and giving advice that will work for many or most people? It’s fine to talk about the exceptions or for people to bring up cases when it doesn’t work for them. WE ARE HIGHLY VARIABLE – thank goodness for that too!

    Having said all that I like to be accurate. I don’t want to say something that is not true and I welcome you or anyone else pointing out to me when you think it is not true. I also like a little controversy, but I’m not going to get into pissing matches around the edges of everything somebody says.

    I love your blog, BTW.

    Stephen – Rat Race Traps last blog post..Living Now – Part I

  • @ Stephen – It’s never gonna deteriorate into a pissing match because that suggests a clash of egos. I do have an ego and lovely and opinionated it is too, but it’s not attached enough to this discussion to dive in. It’s way too concerned with the zit that came up last night on my chin and wondering if anybody noticed I had half my lunch down my shirt in the Post Office.

    This is a debate to get people thinking and I encourage people to disagree with me. However, similarly I’ll challenge them to explain their point if I’m not sure, and disagree if I disagree. It’s not an ego thing, it’s a desire to learn and understand thing.

    I agree my mum is an exception, but not a tiny exception by any means in my experience. I have seen many people quit over night all sorts of habits after visiting Hypnotherapists, Acupuncturists, EFT specialists and NLP Practitioners.

    The difference is belief and the point Hugh made is absolutely HUGE and something we haven’t talked about. In fact as I was just driving to the Post Office to mail some books I was thinking about that. I started thinking it’s probably THE biggest thing in all of this and we effectively missed it.

    I’m not saying you’re wrong, I’m just saying I’m not sure you’re right. Similarly I’m not convinced I’m right. I’ve read a dozen or so books recently on ‘brain stuff’ for research for my own book. The only thing I’m clearer about is that it’s not that clear and there needs to be lot more research.

    I have just ordered the book Maureen recommended regarding the definitions between habits and addictions and I’m keen to check it out

    Interestingly though one of the books talked about some research (I think it was Sway, but I’m not at all sure) done involving doctors and the wider scientific community. They found out the more convinced they became of a diagnosis/conclusion being right, the likelihood they were wrong increased out of all proportion. Under those circumstances people stop taking on board new information no matter how obvious and in their face it is.

  • Tim, I’ve read all those book she lists. I’ll just end by saying your counter-examples prove people are different. Something you didn’t have to prove to me. I already knew it. I’ll continue to write and I expect you to continue to write as I know you have because I’ve read your writing including a couple of your books without 1) acting like we are writing for the journal nature and 2) without qualifying everything we say with “this is only my opinion” and “this is not intended to categorically apply all the time to all people in all situations” and on and on.

    The examples you provide don’t prove anything yet you continue to use them as if they do and if other people are making categorical statements that they disprove. I think you are holding people to standards you yourself don’t maintain. You may not a agree, but that is my appraisal of the situation.

    “He quit a few years later, yet until he died he could have the occasional cigarette or cigar once per month or so and never went back to smoking regularly.”

    Sounds like he established a new pattern of behavior to me. Exactly my point. You used this single example as a counter-example when in fact it supports the opposite of you provided it for. You seem to imply I am arguing that any smoking from then on to eternity would reestablish an old habit that would override the new. Further more your continued use of smoking is so far off of the typical “habit” I don’t understand why you continue to use it.

    This particular counter-example is so far off of anything I believe I can’t believe you used it. You are completely missing the statements I made about conscious control and in fact are completely misrepresenting what I believe a habit actually is. Habits are about automatic behavior, not about being controlled like you are a programmed robot without a conscious brain.

    This is my point though. They way you provide these examples is why you come off as being in a “pissing match”. You wonder why Glenn reacted the way he did to your original comment? You say you aren’t into pissing matches, but the way you go about it makes it come off that way. You are putting a match to straw men.

    I actually considered writing on this subject after Glen did. It fascinated me. I guess I should have because it would have given me an opportunity to state my opinion about the whole thing in a coherent post length way which is obviously not happening in these comments I am making.

    I still love you man :-)))

    Stephen – Rat Race Traps last blog post..Living Now – Part I

  • I’m glad you came back and responded as I feared you wouldn’t ;-)

    You hit on a good point as to why I am always qualifying what I say and that is because I coach.

    I have people saying to me “but that didn’t work for me and I read it in a book” and “my life is shit because I saw the Secret and it must all be my fault’ or ‘Blogger X says thi sis what I should do’ I have had all those and variations of those many times.

    Consequently I feel I have a duty of care to say to people regularly that this may not work for you when I am writing. On a face-to-face level it’s different, I can be more blunt and use my experience to read the individual

    You’re right I obviously have no idea what your point is, because it seems to be all over the place. Maybe that’s me not having the nous to understand what you’re saying and maybe if we were sat down having a drink it would be like “A-ha, ok I get what you mean now.”

    If you think I am in a pissing match when all I’m trying to do is understand, then maybe I haven’t explained myself correctly. Or maybe that’s what you’re expecting to see because most bloggers seem way more attached to their beliefs that I am to mine.

    You should blog about it, that would be cool.

  • A practicing clinical psychologist for over 35 years, I subscribe to a pretty simple definition of habits. A habit is simply how you behave when you’re not paying attention and not deliberately trying to “steer” your behavior. In other words, it’s what you do automatically.

    The trick, of course, is to have as many habits as possible that keep you going straight down the road when you’re not deliberately steering, and as few habits as possible that require you to grab the wheel in order to keep from going off the road or colliding with your own best interests.

    Unfortunately, we don’t choose much of what gets “habitized.” As a result, most of us end up with our share of unhelpful habits. We’re like a car in need of an alignment. We have to correct too much – or suffer too much – for the things we automatically do when we’re not actively paying attention.

    When it comes to changing habits, I’m convinced that attention is a far more important factor than time is. The better you can keep your attention focused on the change you want to make, the quicker you’ll get the job done. Staying focused – keeping the lights on – not only allows you to consistently do things in the new desired way, by preventing the old habits from having their way, it helps extinguish them. Attention is deliberate habitizing’s greatest ally.

    More than 20 years ago, I actually invented a simple pager-like electronic device called a MotivAider ( that’s designed to enable its user to stay focused on changing a habit. MotivAider users of all ages continue to report success in changing their habits quickly.

  • [...] times where my subconscious (or as Steve Levinson mentioned in the comments section of the “When Is A Habit Not A Habit?” blog post, “what we do automatically“) simply takes over and before I can catch [...]

  • Elliott James

    Hey, I have a MotivAider! Its Pavlov’s Bell in your pocket.

    I’ve done a lot of research on this subject.

    Defining a habit is a gray area because I think there are varying degrees of habits. These degrees lie somewhere between: Automatic with little or no thought prior to the action taken and automatic thought but not automatic action.

    Since everyone is different, their habit formation can be different as well. There are basics that most if not all people do to form habits however.

    Motivation plays a key role. In fact, I think motivation is the key to just about everything we do. (Sorry Mr. Mead)

    This topic is too broad to really cover properly in this type of medium. Its an excellent post Tim however and I think you bring up some important info.

  • [...] times where my subconscious (or as Steve Levinson mentioned in the comments section of the “When Is A Habit Not A Habit?” blog post, “what we do automatically“) simply takes over and before I can catch [...]

  • [...] still slip up sometimes – it takes time to replace a bad habit with a good one – but I’m much more successful than when I tried to deny my [...]

  • [...] on by a comment from Tim Brownson on his blog topic When is a habit not a habit, I decided to document & share my thoughts on reprogramming my brain through the focused, [...]