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Ruminations on Habit Forming

November 12th, 2011 Matt Leave a comment Go to comments
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One of the most powerful tools you have as a writer is your routine. Without it, most people would find it incredibly difficult to produce work consistently (if at all). But sticking to a routine is another matter. The way to do it is to make your routine into a habit. Then you fall into it automatically without having to feel like you’re forcing yourself. But how exactly do you form that habit?

Studies on Habit Forming

Have you ever heard that idea that it takes 21 days to form a habit? I’ve heard that a few times (although I forgot the exact figure before I Googled it), but after a little digging it seems likely that this is a myth. Most articles I found simply stated it as a fact without reference to any sources, or simply said, “experts agree,” which is almost always code for, “I couldn’t be bothered to find out,” or “I’m making this crap up.”

Freehand for editing

I couldn’t even find a definitive source for the 21 days, although this article has a suggestion. Maybe it’s one of those things that got made up and stuck, like swallowing spiders in your sleep.

So how long does it take to form a habit? I couldn’t find a definitive answer there either, and it seems we don’t really know. Most of the articles I found referred back to the study by Phillippa Lally and colleagues from University College London in 2009 mentioned in the Psyblog article above. Here, the magic number is 66 days, or two months! A lot longer than the supposed answer above. Notice that 66 days is an average though – it depends on what the action is that you have to perform.

Another conclusion of the study was that missing the occasional day did not seem to make a huge amount of difference to the overall results. Those who stuck with it more early on however, stood a better chance of making the habit stick. Obviously, as reassuring as this is, there must be a line where missing another day will have a negative impact on your mission.

Habit Resistance

One thing I’ve never understood about the 21 days theory is that it doesn’t take account of how easy the action is to perform or the desire of an individual to perform it. It seems obvious, but some habits catch hold more readily than others. It’s incredibly easy for me to form a habit of playing The Binding Of Isaac (warning about that link – offence may be caused) on the train home, but a lot more difficult to form (or even continue) one that involves me writing.

Sticking with this example, I guess that’s because playing a game is more immediately rewarding. Don’t get me wrong, I do get a sense of achievement (even after writing only 300 words on the train), knowing that I’ve been disciplined enough to do it and that I’m a little closer to reaching my goals for that week. But that doesn’t stand much of a chance against a game designed to make every minute rewarding.

In fact, with enough data, you could probably come up with a formula for habit forming that takes into account the size and frequency of reward and the difficulty in completing the behaviour. We might call the “Habit Resisitance”. That in turn might even give us a rough picture of how long it might take to form such a habit.

Make it Stick

But for now, it’s good to know that if you aim for 66 days of writing every day, you stand a good chance of getting that behaviooiur to stick and become almost automatic. I certainly know from my own experience that lapses in my routine make it harder to get back into the “habit”, but if regular, writing becomes easier and easier. It’s not truly felt automatic yet, and perhaps this is the reason – too many breaks and not a long enough run. Something I will remedy.

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