How do you form a new habit? Consider the Power of Patience.

We’ve all heard the statistic. “It takes 30 days to form a new habit”. Yet most of us drop our new habit between days 3 to 8. Why? And what’s the solution?

Pysiology of Adaptation.001

I recently shared Leadership strategies at the Canadian Consulate General in Seattle and spoke with an old friend who attended the event. She had begun a 30-day healthy living challenge to lose weight, feel better and increase her energy. Because I teach behaviour change within contexts of leadership, teamwork and change management, I enjoy hearing personal quests in new habit acquisition. To many, behavior change and in particular, new habit formation are elusive animals. Many of us struggle blindly towards positive change.

The Science

When I rowed for 73 days across the Atlantic Ocean, I noticed a peculiar phenomenon. My teammates and I transitioned from states of excitement, to regret, to tolerance, to embracement, to thriving at roughly the same interval. Interestingly, between days 25-35, each of my four teammates had fully adapted both physically and mentally. We were sharing a 100 square foot living space, overcoming seasickness, eating re-hydrated food, adapting to a polyphasic sleep schedule and rowing for 12 hours each day, often 2 hours on, 2 hours off. Our environment demanded that we adopt a new set of habits, but nevertheless it still took us 25-35 days to thrive.

Physiological evidence from multiple fields supports our experience while crossing the Atlantic.  For example, scientists from NASA made astronaut candidates wear glasses with mirrors that inverted the world while they were awake.  Everything looked upside-down. The astronauts struggled at first. Then between days 26-30 the spacemen were able to function optimally. An interesting finding of this study occurred when the research subjects removed the mirrored glasses for one day. It then took them 26-30 additional consecutive days to build a new habit.

The science of habit adoption is far from conclusive. The ease of habit adoption depends on many factors, including personality, level of commitment, context, the behaviour in question, and so on. Of note, a study in the European Journal of Social Psychology in 2009 concluded that on average, it can take anywhere between 18-254 days for a new behaviour to become automatic. This study serves as a reminder that as with much of the human condition, there is considerable variation in speed of adaptation.  Part art, part science, the truth is there is no quick fix, no one size fits all approach to new habit formation.

The good news?  With commitment, consistency, and unrelenting patience, new habits can and will be established.

The bad news? It takes time and effort.

The solution? Commit. Be consistent. Have unrelenting patience.


Send Adam Kreek a message on Twitter @adamkreek. You can also find more tips to improve your body, mind and soul on the Don’t Change Much website or through Adam’s column on CBC Sports.

Adam delivers authentic keynotes, workshops and seminars for corporate, government and not-for-profit organizations worldwide.  Please contact us for information about our offerings.

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