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. It’s true that you can’t simply do something for only 3 days, or 10, and expect it to “stick”. And the effort required to create a new habit is well worth it! But I think there are too many factors to pin it down to a specific number of days for all habits and all people.

Factors include: your mindset and previous experiences; the specific habit you are trying to create; logistics; your tendencies; and whether it is a daily, weekly, or monthly habit that you are trying to establish. (Just Google 21 Day Habit Myth to see I’m not the only one.)

Don’t break the chain!

This calendar image is from a time when I successfully completed 21 days of a New Year’s Resolution, which was to walk at least 20 minutes on the treadmill in the morning, BEFORE breakfast or coffee. People always say “exercise in the morning” and I always resisted that, thinking I’ll do it later…which usually doesn’t happen. The goal was 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 was just the bare minimum.

The habit-forming strategy I used (that time) was 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 was not broken. Yay for me! I didn’t rely solely on “The Chain”, though. Other behaviors that supported the new habit included: 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 rigged up a treadmill computer desk of sorts so that I could check Facebook, and email, and read articles while I walked. I had 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.

Don’t give up!

So…was 21 days enough to create a new habit? I don’t remember….that was 5 years ago. And I’m not doing it now, so… it wouldn’t be the first habit I have created, and broken, and re-created during my lifetime! But think about it….who has time to do everything they ever wanted to do all at the same time? Things change. Even the best system needs tweaking now and then.

Also, not all systems of habit change work for all people. If you don’t like Jerry Seinfeld’s method, try Gretchen Rubin’s, or Charles Duhigg’s. But don’t give up!

New goals

I was reminded of this old 2014 post because now, in 2019, I’m trying to establish the habit of writing everyday. I was inspired by a colleague to attend a writing conference, and was inspired by the conference to write an outline for a non-fiction book called What’s a Photo Without the Story? And then I stopped, but only for a few weeks, because I had yet to incorporate the new project into my daily routine.

Now it’s NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and I was inspired by my friends at the Getting to Good Enough podcast to join them. They are aiming at 50,000 words during the month of November, and I am aiming at 1 hour a day working on my non-fiction book. We are keeping each other accountable by entering our progress on a shared spreadsheet. Wish us luck!

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

How have your habits and goals changed over the years?

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Copyright 2014-2019 by Hazel Thornton, Organized For Life.
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Comments

  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.

  3. I agree that 21 days is not a magical guarantee of a new habit. In fact, when it comes to time I think it is more like 6 weeks. Still, I completely agree that time alone is not the magic ingredient to a new habit. I find that that tying a new habit to an existing one is most helpful for me. For instance, I recently needed to start taking a supplement, so I decided to take it at night when I brush my teeth, because I pretty much never skip brushing my teeth. I’m also so glad you talked about the fact that you can “try again,” even if you fell off the wagon in a previous attempt. Habits can be so powerful, so it is worth investing the ones we truly desire.

    • And that’s for a daily habit. What about a weekly habit? 21 days only provides 3-4 times to perform a new activity. But I agree that tying a new habit to an existing one is the best way, along with replacing an unwanted habit with a more desirable one.

  4. I love this. I am working on several projects. The habit I want to create is moving each one of them forward at least a little everyday. So, I’m aiming for 15 to 20 minutes on each one of my big projects daily. I figure an hour or so will get me moving. What do you think? I wish you good luck with your book!

    • What do I think? I think that it sometimes it is really important to keep more than one big project moving forward. In fact, I’m thinking of adding a couple to my own current routine. It all depends, of course, on whether there’s a deadline, and how big the projects are, and it’s important to periodically review shifting priorities. But I’m a fan of slow, steady progress. (See my blog post “Does Progress Equal Happiness?”)

      When clients tell me they want to drop everything and work exclusively on decluttering and organizing until it’s finished, I advise them not to. For one thing, organizing is never “finished”. They need to incorporate the habit into their routine. But even the initial project might take so long as to completely derail their other goals if they let it.

      And thanks!

  5. Wow! First of all, the best of success with your writing project. That’s exciting to be working on a non-fiction book. I’m sure it’s going to be incredible. You’re a talented writer.

    Habits are curious things. I find it fascinating how excited we can be day 1, 2, or 3, but then can easily get derailed. We’re too tired, or too busy, or too_______. The one thing I know about my habits is that some stick, as in REALLY stick. And some are more elusive. So I pretty much have the daily teeth brushing and dental flossing down. But when it comes to walking daily, not so much. I’ve done well in establishing a daily meditation habit. But when it comes to ignoring my sweet tooth, not as successful.

    I’ve often wondered why some habits are “stickier” than others. And I don’t have an answer. But what I do know is that it’s always worth trying again. It’s also worth NOT beating yourself up when you get off track. We are human. We’re not perfect. And it’s pretty near impossible to do everything “right” simultaneously.

    The only other thought is that when you can group one good habit with another, you have a better chance of success. That has worked for me in the past.

    • Awww, thanks Linda! I find that no matter how much I want to achieve a particular goal, or establish a particular habit, sometimes I get tired and simply forget. So, it’s partly a matter of being clear on one’s goals, and setting oneself up for success (by picking a time of day when one will remember and not be too tired), and link to another habit, and…..oh, this is such a big topic, no wonder people write whole books about it!

  6. That’s exciting about your new book! And I’m intrigued about the shared spreadsheet with other writers. Having an accountability partner seems to work for many people, but I don’t know if it would work for me. How’s the 1 hour a day part going so far? Are you having so much fun writing it that 1 hour doesn’t seem like enough?

    • I’m like you, Carol, not too keen on accountability for the most part. Have you ever read Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before? (Search for my blog post “Better than Before”.) It explained a lot to me about why it doesn’t work for me. (I’m a Questioner with a touch of Rebel.) In the case of this spreadsheet, all I have to do is put an X that I did what I said I’d do. I don’t have to explain what I’m doing to anyone and entertain their thoughts on the matter. LOL! Also, I am finding (so far) that an hour a day is quite satisfactory….that is, compared to writing for 5 hours and then not at all for 3 weeks, thinking, “Well, I can work on this anytime.” (See also my blog post “Does Progress Equal Happiness?”)

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