Happiness is Habit Forming: Part One

As a Learning and Talent Development Adviser I am very interested in habits. The way we form and break habits is a major factor in our performance. It is also a major factor in our learning. Habits contribute to happiness and its opposite. This is a growing field of study, and at ACE Conference  on the 18th November I will be chairing Dr Nick Baylis’s masterclass on the subject. I promise you’ll leave that session happy!

To get you warmed up for that I want to give you some insights into habits. First, I  hope to get you into a habit of reading this blog for the next while because I will hook you with some interesting insights about habits. I’ll share with you a bit of my own struggle with good and  bad habits. I also want to get you into the habit of looking for an evidence base to the stuff we think we know. For example we are told by research based on work with amputee victims (Google it!), that habits take 21 days to break. Not quite!

The latest research on habit forming, shows that habits actually take much longer to break on average than 21 days. Social psychologists who study deep motivations and feelings have found that on average a new positive habit doesn’t become second nature till around two months. I like evidence based research and  Philppa Lally and her colleagues interviewed 90 odd people  ( and I am sure some fairly normal ones),  and tracked their intention to  take small but positive steps such as eating a piece of fruit with lunch or running for 15 minutes per day. This was published in a peer reviewed journal with a robust experimental design so that the results couldn’t just have happened by chance.  The research indicates a range of  between 18 days and 256 days to “automaticity”  I.e. doing/not doing without thinking, depending on the “ease/difficulty of the change.

 I am indebted to PyschBlog for the natty hand drawn chart below and the three bullet points summarising the wider insights.   Having a glass of water every day is easy so it’s close to the horizontal axis. Doing 50 sit ups in the morning is difficult unless you are a real gym bunny in which case it’s like drinking glasses of water so you’d have to do something difficult. Maybe 100 dips  with lead trainers. Anyway that habit is more difficult and  takes longer to establish so hence its further away from the horizontal axis and has a shallower  curve. http://www.spring.org.uk/2009/09/how-long-to-form-a-habit.php

  •  Missing a single day did not reduce the chance of forming a habit. 
  • A sub-group took much longer than the others to form their habits, perhaps suggesting some people are 'habit-resistant'.
  • Other types of habits may well take much longer.

Now I am going to form a new habit in the next two months before Christmas. I will

• Work-out at health club at last 3 x weekly Monday to Friday

• Eat healthy diet cutting down on saturate fats

• Stop drinking on weekdays and when I do offset it by drinking less on weekends.

If you want to join me choose your own new habits and let’s see where we get. More next  week.

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  • John,

    Love it... and great you're into the habit of blogging.


  • In order to break a habit you need a conscious practice. This will take around 90 days to embody. This is what 12 step programs use for starters. The ones that thought different are dead, so a good testing ground.

    Much leadership training ignores the role of practice in learning which is a shame.

    All the best from Brighton,