Forming new habits: There’s good news and bad news.
Published in kankakee Daily Journal May 15, 2019
What do you want to hear first, the good news or the bad news? Let me start with the bad news so we can finish on a positive note.
Many of us set New Year’s resolutions. In the first month many are broken. By now, the middle of May, the vast majority are broken. Matter of fact, a University of Scranton study found that just 8% of people are successful in carrying out their resolutions. Across the last few years, I’ve given a variety of advice in this column. I’ll let you in on a little secret. First and foremost, the advice is for me. Sometimes, I’ve successfully carried out a new habit (such as writing 3 to 5 things I’m grateful for each day) for up to a month. Then, well you know, life happens, and I stop. But then I start up again for a while. It can be a bit discouraging.
Bad news point 1. Human behavior is very resistant to change! In some ways, though, that is good, because long-positive habits tend to stay in place. Conversely, bad habits like running late five minutes are extremely difficult to overcome. Many habits both constructive and distracting are formed over years and many of them come from things we saw our parents do as we were growing up.
Bad news point 2. Who we are today is a combination of both nurture and nature. Some people are just naturally upbeat and positive. Others tend to have a basic nature that leans more to being a “Johnny Raincloud.” I saw this in my grandparents. My paternal grandmother was a kind person but always seemed a bit depressed. Since she lived before the days of positive psychology and the discovery that you can change your outlook with effort, she did remarkedly well. On the other hand, my maternal grandfather was a naturally happy, outgoing man who radiated the joy of life. I seemed to have gotten more of his nature. Even the late Chris Peterson, one the founders of the positive psychology movement, admitted that he was not naturally a cheerful person and had to work at it. So, some of us must strive harder to project an encouraging outlook.
Bad news point 3. Under stress and pressure the natural thing is to go back to our old behaviors. For about a third of my professional career I had the job of designing and developing seminars on topics varying from management, sales, motivation, leadership and more, first at Eastern Iowa Community College, then at Florida State’s Center for Professional Development, and finally at the Weber Leadership Center. Having supervised over a 1000 seminars, workshops, and conferences from 1980-2017, I was always struck that participants would come to one day events and leave all fired up and enthused. But when they got back to their jobs, much, if not most, of what they learned was soon swept away. There was one notable exception and that was software classes such as Lotus 1-2-3, Excel, Word, and Power Point. The big difference is that people attending those type of workshops went back and immediately and consistently put into practice what they had learned.
Good news point 1. If you keep at it, you’ll be successful. Based on the famous habit-forming advice of Ben Franklin (practice it for 30 days to cement it) I have written about this in the past–apparently underestimating what it really takes. According to James Clear in his article How Long Does it Actually Take to Form a New Habit? (Backed by Science) he cites Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher at University College London. “In a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Lally and her research team decided to figure out just how long it actually takes to form a habit.” The results–“On average, it takes more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact. And how long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances. In Lally’s study, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit.” So the good news is: if we have failed in the past, we need to persevere longer.
Good news point 2. Even if you “backslide” for a few days, if you resume your efforts chances are you will succeed. The researchers found that forming new habits is not an all or nothing proposition. Even partially succeeding, not only are you going to be better off, but those around you will benefit as well. Suppose the new habit you are trying to form is everyday recognizing and thanking at least one person for their work. If you do it for a few weeks and stop, you still would have left a trail of appreciation. Since appreciation is contagious, the odds are you going to change others in the process.
Good news point 3. Good habits tend to extinguish bad habits. Sometimes our resolutions properly focus on getting rid of bad behavior. Now I know none of you are this way, but gossip can be fun (just ask any of your gossiping “friends.”) But of course it hurts both the target and the gossiper in the long run. It may be very difficult to stop the habit cold-turkey. But one of the most effective ways to destroy a bad habit is to replace it with its exact opposite. Think about what was said above as far as expressing appreciation and gratefulness to others. It is almost impossible to both appreciate others and gossip about them at once. Bottom-line: if you want to destroy a bad habit think of the exact opposite and pursue it.
Dr. Don Daake is professor emeritus at Olivet and has an MBA from the University of Iowa and a Ph.D. from Florida State University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org