Habits (aka How To Learn ANYTHING) – (1 of 2)


How would you like to learn anything? or change a behavior you want to get rid of?

How about any new behaviors that you’d like to adopt?

Exercise? Diet? Learning to play guitar?

In this article (and the next one) I want to take a brief look at Habit Forming – as it is really powerful stuff and something I’ve been meaning to write something about for a long time.

In concept, it’s simple (yes I do like my simple but powerful concepts), but there are some nuances, so we’ll cover those too and I’ll tell you why and how in a moment.

If you’ve ever tried to form new habits, you might know from experience that it’s not always as easy as it sounds…

Some Things You May Have Heard About Habits

“It takes 21 days to form a new habit.”

“Habits are sub-conscious repeated behaviors.”

“Habits are trained, repetitive behaviors.”

“Habits concern routine tasks…”

“Old habits die hard” (Old habits are hard to break)

“New habits are hard to form”

I could throw up a few more quotes attributed to Habits and Habit formation but you get the idea and have probably heard of at least one or two of the expressions above.

The last two in particular don’t bode well for what we want to achieve (no less than success).

How Habits Form

Wikipedia says this:

“The process by which new behaviors become automatic is habit formation.”

Now, I know wiki isn’t the absolute authority, but I think that this is a very good summary to work with.

We can therefore form new habits with a new behavior, or change existing habits by replacing an old behavior with a preferred, new one.

Our goal then, put simply, is to make new behaviors automatic.

How Do We Make New Behaviors Automatic (to Form Habits)?

Whilst the goal is simple and easy to understand, it’s not always so easy to implement.

The common thread in a lot of the expressions above are that if we do something for long enough, it should become a habit.

… but then there is the last one, “New habits are hard to form”.

So I’d like to look at two ‘levels’:

  1. how to form new habits at a basic level (this article) – i.e. by doing something in a repeated way for long enough (I like to think of a month rather than 21 days, just to be sure)
  2. looking at the habit forming process in a little more detail (next week) – not to jam too much into one article, and also because I’d really like to get your experiences first too, in the next article, we’ll explore a little more of the process and psychology behind habit formation and why sometimes even if we try and form new habits by doing things repeatedly for a while (the obvious example being diets), the new habit doesn’t stick (and what to do about it)

As a good example of level 1, here is an interesting video which is a TED talk from Matt Cutts of Google, ‘try something new for 30 days’:

The Problem With The ‘Try Something For 30 Days’ Approach

It doesn’t always work.

It might.

but it doesn’t always (like Matt’s ‘giving up sugar’ example).

– because it depends on a few other things too, not least the thing that you’re trying for 30 days.

Are you enjoying this new thing (for example)?

Now over to you…

Please comment below to either give a brief example of any time you’ve tried to develop a new habit or change an existing one – whether it worked or not (please mention that too).

… because in the next article I’m going to cover why just doing something for 21/30 days may not be enough – and what to do about it to give the habit much more chance of sticking.

Image Credit: Lorena Stoica


Habits (aka How To Learn ANYTHING) – (1 of 2) — 25 Comments

  1. Alan,

    I must be one weak person because I have the hardest time starting new good habits and ending old bad ones.

    I have been known to workout 3-4 times a week for 8 months to quit at the slightest change in my schedule (usually coincides with kids’ school breaks). I told myself I would walk the dog everyday at noon, that lasted a whole month.

    I have scheduled in things and had alerts for these tasks. I have put notes all over the house as reminders. Nothing works, I default back to my usual routine and regular habits. Let me add that my daily life is not that bad. I eat ok and move quite a bit.

    And subtracting something out if it is bad? Forget it! I have no will power. I love coffee and chocolate too much. And pizza, beer and hamburgers.

    Habits, for me, are very hard to form and break. Maybe I get distracted too easily. Maybe deep down I really am weak minded when it comes to satisfying my cravings. I don’t know.

    The whole concept makes me angry when I think about it because I feel like I disappoint myself too often.

    But then again, I get distracted from those thoughts and move on with my day. LOL.


    • Hey Allie,

      did the article help you understand at all why this might be or give you any new ideas for how you can change your habits (if you wanted to)?

      sounds to me that you have 2 things going on – limiting beliefs (i.e. you convince yourself you’re going to fail) and poor habit forming (i.e. not setting the habit up in the first place for success – which could either be not understanding it enough or not having a compelling enough reason/reward).

      • I think many times I prefer to just be happy with the way things are. I mean, they aren’t bad, they could just be better.

        I do feel I can succeed, I mean, I have kept great habits for long periods of time. It just seems like I get distracted easily.

        Maybe I just don’t feel like changing.

        I never go in feeling like I’m going to fail. Or convinced I will. And when I do, I am not hard on myself. I grew up Catholic and got real tired of the guilt so now when I fall I just shrug and move on.


  2. I think I’m really good at changing habits, but I’ve noticed that it’s harder for me to add good habits than to take away bad ones. I think it might be my approach though. Although lately I’ve been good at adding the habit of eating a couple of serving of vegetables a day.

    As far as the ones I’ve given up, I’ve stopped drinking soda and eating fast food. Recently I gave up eating cereal since I wanted to cut out more sugar. What I usually do is slowly reduce eating the bad foods until I eventually just cut them out completely. I find this slow reduction works well for me and going cold turkey often doesn’t.

    Anyway, I’m interested to see how part 2 turns out.

  3. Hi Alan,

    I read some report a year ago that the magic number is actually 66 days to form a habit. After that i dabbled in trying new habits, specifically i tried that 30 day fast to see if i could form new habits as a result and now i’m trying this paleo way of eating to see if i can forgo certain foods for good.

    But as many people stated here in the comments, sometimes those old habits keep coming back. This is the part i am trying to untangle. Why is that?

    looking forward to the next article. You of all people know how i love change and experiments and they have a lot to do with breaking old habits don’t they?

    • Hey Annie,

      I talk about why old habits come back in part 2 (link below), so I hope that answers your question.

      I love habits too – particularly because there’s more to this simple concept than first meets the eye and a little psychology to it (which I’m particularly ‘into’).

      Yes – change and experiments do have a lot to do wiith breaking old habits!

  4. I’ve heard it takes about 10,000 repetitions for something to completely go from short term memory into long term / muscle memory. So performing say, a specific martial art movement roughly ten thousand times will see that movement moved into your muscle and long term memory where you no longer even have to think about how to do it, why to do it, when to do it etc. Your brain and subconscious just does it. And does it well.

    For me personally, I’ve always found habits easy to start (for better or for worse) I try my absolute hardest to be the best at everything I do because I’m extremely competitive, so my habits are formed that way.

    I find that pushing through the first couple of months that may absolutely suck (like when I started marathon training from absolutely nothing) is KEY to forming the habit. Getting through that initial “sucky” period is such great motivation and by that time, its become a habit.

    • Hey Michael,

      this is a great comment and an interesting perspective on the concept of muscle memory.

      I heard the number 10,000 in conjunction with being an expert (I think it was 10,000 hours to become an expert) – not sure where from though, I guess a google search would sort that one out.

      I also like what you say about pushing through the difficult part of habit formation – it should get easier but we still need a reward/motivation for the habit/change in the first place, which I talk about a little more in the next article – I’d love to get your thoughts on that.

      Does this number of repetitions also work for non-physical routines? 10,000 is a pretty big number though so I’m guessing this would be effective but for example forcing someone against their will to do something 10,000 times even though it would become habitual and routine, they may still stop doing it given half the chance if there was no motivation there.

      Thanks again for a great comment!

  5. I don’t think we need even 30 days to form a habit. That is with the right mindset and goal. For instance: I tried a productivity challenge for the last week, and I was able to dramatically decrease the amount of time I spent on blogging. I am done with the personal challenge, but I still go by it, it has became a habit for me to use tools such as Rescue Time and Focus Booster to record the time I spend on each activity and improve. And on the other side, I tried to form the exercising habit everyday, but couldn’t, still can’t. I think that’s because I don’t have a clear goal with it. I just want to exercise, no mission, no goal (so, not much of importance to my own mind). We can form a habit much easily by having a clear goal in mind.

    Anyways, thank you for the post, Alan (Waiting for the next post about the psychological processes behind habit formation; I love psychology, loved it in school :D).

    Jeevan Jacob John

    • Hi Jeevan,

      thanks for this comment. You should definitely read part 2. The reason you have been very successful with certain habits is the ratio between the ease of implementation (e.g. using new software – realtively easy) and the reward (e.g. instant productivity results).

      For more difficult habits (exercise, healthy eating, giving up bad habits) we need to re-create this ratio to be favorable as best we can – i.e. ‘set up’ the habit so that it is as easy to follow as possible and create a compelling reward – it’s explained fully in my next article so I’d be interested to hear what you think of it!

      take care & best wishes (& thankks again for sharing this),

  6. I totally agree Alan, if you want to do something different then do it for 30 days.

    I haven’t had any major things I’ve wanted to incorporate or change but I have done things I knew I needed to create habits doing so I’ve been consistent with doing them every single day. They are just normal now and I enjoy doing them so to me it was well worth it.

    Now I know for me like losing weight, that’s not always an easy task to do. There will always be those cravings but what you have to do is just move through them because they will go away and the end results are so much more rewarding.

    Looking forward to part two so thanks for sharing this topic.


    • Hey Adrienne,

      it sounds like you don’t have any problems with motivation and you have great will power so in your case, you have been able to make habits stick quite well (e.g. when losing weight isn’t easy resisting your cravings).

      You hit the nail on the head with this comment – if the reward (in your case your focus on the end results) is compelling enough, you will succeed in the changes you want to make (habits you want to form).

      I’ve now written part 2 & would love to get your thoughts on it (link below)

  7. How true those quotes are!
    Last year I had to weight loss, so I couldn’t eat ice-cream(i ate it every day before)
    For me to form a new habit it took more than 21 days.

  8. Very timely post, Alan.

    Thinking about when I have changed a habit, or created a new one, in the past – it’s been about sharing the experience with someone (I’ve experimented with Paleo diet and bi-phasic sleep). After the habit has been formed, I’ve been able to sustain it for a few months, but then the ‘old’ habits and routines show up again.

    Looking forward to your next blog!


    • Wow – Paleo and bi-phasic sleep. Very interesting stuff Razwana!

      Thanks so much for sharing this – I’m going to refer back specifically to ‘old’ habits and routines showing up again and why that can happen in the next article,

      just out of interest, what was the reason you wanted to try bi-phasic sleep?

      • Back when I was trying to hold down a full time job, start a website, write blogs and take some courses, I didn’t have enough hours in the day. So I decided biphasic sleep was a good way of coming home from work, having a nap, and then working on the website/courses. It was amazing – literally like logging off and logging back on again. The first week was TOUGH, but it became exhilarating after that.

        Then I couldn’t make it fit into social situations and decided to go back to monophasic – man was that difficult!

        I’ve just Amazon’d The Power of Habit – it’ll be a great read after I read your post!

        – Razwana

        • Wow – you have me very interested in this – maybe something else I should look into. I know Tim Ferris did a lot of experimenting with sleep and wrote about it in one of his books, I can’t remember if it was the 4 hour work week or the 4 hour body – must have been the latter.

          In any case, sounds very interesting. Can you do quadphasic? Or multi-phasic? 😉

          • Ha ha ha! I think the term you are looking for is polyphasic. Ferris does indeed cover it in 4HB – it’s where I became interested in the experiment. Steve Pavlina also covers it in his blog. In fact, I’m sure that forum comes up as the first result when you google ‘bi phasic sleep’

  9. OK, Alan, I’ll tell about a habit change I was a part of. My family and I decided to change our diet radically for the sake of my dear mother’s health. For the last two years of her life we all ate a macrobiotic diet. The first month of using the diet rates up there with other things in my life that were incredibly difficult. After the first month there were problems but it gradually became easier and easier. After Mom’s death we continued the macrobiotic diet for about a year. I never felt or looked healthier in my life than those 3 years.

    Now, we all eat junk food, our health is ok (spelled in lower case on purpose) and we talk often about returning to macrobiotic or a revised version of it.

    So . . . in response to your question — yes it worked, then no it failed.

    • Hey Yvonne,

      this is a great example and thank you so much for sharing your experience, we’ll take a look at closer look at why such habits can stick … then don’t in the next article,


  10. I have been working toward incorporating a Qi Gong routine into my daily schedule. I find that I am more willing to do it at night and that I rest better when I do. However, I often wait too late, so I try and do it the next morning and I forget. Needless to say I am not getting it done on a daily basis.

    • Hey Joy,

      that’s really cool – you should read Isabelle’s article on Tai-Chi if you haven’t already and let us know what you think.

      You make an important point when it comes to new habits – timing (well more specifically consistency which is what we’re looking for by doing things at the same time each day) – there is no point in trying to add something new into your daily routine unless you can be consistent with that change on a daily basis, yours is an excellent example and one of the things I’ll cover in a little more detail in the next article,

      thanks so much for the comment!
      take care & best wishes,

  11. Hey Alan, I’m excited to see the next article. I’ve been working on habits for a while now and they can be tough to break. I’ve had good success with working on one at a time. I’m pretty sure I can do more than that but it’s just hard to remember exactly what you’re doing for the first couple weeks that just one makes it easier. I’d love to see how many are possible during a single month if you really organized it well.

    Have you read Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit”? He goes through the breakdown of a habit really nicely. He says there’s a trigger, the routine and then a reward. Knowing that it’s easier to identify your triggers for current habits.

    • Hey Ross,

      you’re right, normally it’s better to work with one habit at a time, though it can depend upon what you’re working on. I have had clients working on up to 10 small habits at once and seen a lot of success with this, but this only really works with small, sustainable changes and I also use that kind of thing (i.e. more than one habit at a time) to show how habit forming works and explore why some ‘stuck’ and some didn’t – there can also be also a real art to the way we define the new habits we want at the outset to set ourselves up for success.

      Also – way to spoil the surprise dude!! Yes, Duhigg’s triggers & rewards is pretty much what I mean when I mention process above, I’ll also be showing how this can relate to NLP anchors and explaining more about the relationship between habits and learning (e.g. how we can use habits to learn things).

      thanks for the comment,

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