The 21 Day Habit Myth (Don’t Break the Chain!)

2014-01-21 07.55.57

Calendar bird photo by Ann Strober.

I hate to be a party pooper, but I just don’t believe it takes 21 days to create a habit. Or 30 days. Or however long people are saying. The point, which is that you can’t simply do something for only 3 days, or 10, and expect it to “stick”, is true and well taken. And — don’t get me wrong — the effort required to create a new habit is well worth it! But I think it depends on too many factors to pin it down to a specific number of days for all habits and all people. Factors such as: your mindset and previous experiences; the habit you are trying to create; logistics; and whether it is a daily habit, or weekly, or monthly, that you are trying to establish. (Just Google “21 Day Habit Myth” if you’d like to read more about it.)

That said, I have successfully completed 21 days of my New Year’s Resolution, which is to walk at least 20 minutes on the treadmill in the morning, BEFORE breakfast or coffee. Woo hoo! People always say “exercise in the morning” and I have always resisted, thinking I’ll do it later…which I sometimes do, but usually don’t. My goal is to build back up to a longer, faster walk, with intervals and inclines, and then add in more activities during the day. 20 minutes on the treadmill in the morning is just the bare minimum.

The habit-forming strategy I am using (this time) is Jerry Seinfeld’s “Don’t Break the Chain” method which is, essentially:

  1. Pick a goal.
  2. Mark off the days on which you work toward that goal.
  3. Use your chain of marked off days as a motivator.

As you can see from the photo, the chain of Xs has not been broken. Yay for me! I can’t rely solely on “The Chain”, though. Other behaviors that support this new habit: 1) I put my walking shoes, socks, and clothes on the floor right next to my bed. I’d have to go out of my way to NOT put them on and be ready for the treadmill! 2) I have rigged up a treadmill computer desk of sorts so that I can check Facebook, and email, and read articles while I walk. I have other strategies for amusing myself on the treadmill for longer walks: watch TV or movies; listen to audiobooks; meditate on a set of affirmations; and, yes, look out the window and let my mind wander.

So…do I think that after 21 days I have created a new habit? Maybe… however, this wouldn’t be the first habit I have created, and broken, and re-created during my lifetime. I think I’d better keep putting my shoes by my bed and marking Xs on my calendar if I want to continue with this one!

Tell me by leaving a comment…what works for YOU when creating a new habit?

Copyright 2014 by Hazel Thornton, Organized For Life.
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  1. My new daily habit for this year is meditating and so far I’ve been very successful at sticking with it! I think the reason why is that I knew I needed to do it before everyone else in the house got up so I planned to do it right after getting the coffee going in the morning (I’m always the first one up). So, I have a firm anchor to tie it to as I ALWAYS put the coffee on first thing! I’ve already progressed from 12 to 18 minutes each morning – I’d like to get to 30 eventually, I add another 2 minutes each time I start feeling comfortable with the current time interval.

    • Good job, Karen! Yes, anchors are important. Honestly, I don’t think I’d be sticking to my resolution quite so easily if I didn’t also have a medication I need to take 20 minutes before eating or drinking anything else. I didn’t mention it before because…I don’t know…TMI?

  2. Hadn’t heard of the Jerry Seinfield method before this but it sounds quite do-able. Even if one can’t devote the same time daily to a creating a new habit, the Xs could be motivation enough to ensure making time for the new habit. Thanks for providing a new way of looking at this.

    • Hi Moreen! Jerry uses it to make sure he writes daily. It could be used for anything, including decluttering 15 minutes a day. Anything where a little each day is better than letting it go (or pile up) and trying to do a lot of it all at once. There have been elaborate calendars developed around keeping track of several daily tasks/habits using this method.

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