It’s a common piece of self-help lore: That you can change your habits in 21 days. But I believe this is a myth. Most of us can’t completely adopt new habits and jettison old ones in 3 short weeks. It’s a process that is more difficult than it may seem at first, and takes longer.
In my experience, working with people all over the globe, our brains take 66 days on average to adapt to changes in habits, because of the multiple systems of ‘braking’ and psychological automation we have developed over time and which are often deeply ingrained.
Change is difficult because at our core we are all creatures of habit. In fact, I would push the concept even further by saying that we are slaves to our habits. And the brain cooperates by being on autopilot, playing tricks on us to keep with the typical program. To make a simple analogy, think about all the times you drove your car somewhere only to later not remember the route or the drive!
Being on autopilot is not ideal. Would you feel comfortable being flown in an aircraft with no pilot at all – including for take-off and landing? Of course not! In the same vein, why do you drive on autopilot, whether on the road or in your life?
The force of habit
Habits, although reassuring, may sabotage your chances of success in work and life. Habits weigh you down, continuously and without you being aware of their negative impact.
In his Treatise of Pedagogy, the philosopher Immanuel Kant raised the issue: “… the more habits a human being has, the less free and independent he becomes.” To this I would add: “and the less he is able to exploit his full potential.”
Why are habits limiting? Because when habits keep us in our comfort zone, we miss out on the magic that is happening outside of our comfort zone! We become dependent on the feeling of a “superficial well-being” and are tethered to the “psychological benchmark” provided by our habits.
Deep-rooted habits are acquired over a long time. For this reason, anyone who tells you that you can shed them in 3 weeks or less is likely being disingenuous; the time required to dispose of self-limiting habits is proportional to the time in which we developed them!
How does it work exactly when one relies on a habit? When we encounter an experience, our brain will move to acquire a cognitive strategy that we have stored in our internal ‘databank’ – one that we used in the past on a similar or same situation. Isn’t this reliance on precedent a hindrance to our free will? A limitation or a barrier to using our capabilities, our skills, our talents – and most importantly, our potential?
Change habits to create a better version of you
A stalemate in your habits limits your ability to change, evolve and improve. If you adhere to habits you won’t be exploring new avenues and developing new skills.
Experts in their field stay experts because of their ability to learn new things, adapt, and not rely on typical cognitive strategies. Habits are more or less shortcuts to which we are well-conditioned, to which we submit as we go about our daily activities. Fortunately, our brains guide us automatically, to a certain extent, otherwise life would be exhausting! However, the real danger lies when we rely completely on habit and automation, beyond the basic innate and acquired gestures.
The potential of growth, of reaching the next level in our lives (both personal and professional), lies in the unknown and untried. In short, to evolve we must jettison the weight of certain habits.
Rest assured, the human being adapts beautifully to change! Give up a habit that is holding you back. Adopt new habits that propel you to a new skill, an accomplishment or an evolution. If the idea of shedding habits alarms you, tell yourself that you’ll find stability in instability. After all, the only constant is change.
Do you dare to embrace change in 66 days, to find your path towards good things and away from habits that are holding you back?