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.