“All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.”
~ Leonardo da Vinci
By: Martin Grunburg
For each of the following “myths” I will do my best to share its origin, (if possible) the general fallacy and why there is a better understanding and way to proceed when it comes to developing new productive habits!
Myth #1: Habits are bad…
Probably more of a powerful and unfortunate misunderstanding (less a myth). However, it’s still tough to deny the existing negative connotation that permeates throughout western society. This has massive consequences on how people and organizations attempt to achieve their goals. Why? Because they are largely focusing on the one-off, steps or a ToDo list of actions instead of the core, related behaviors (habits).
There is a large number of personal development “gurus” and even business and management coaches who haven’t yet keyed in on habit as the pathway to goal achievement. A few quick examples recently observed: One coach blogs, “to achieve your goals you must avoid habits.” Another tweets, “five habits that keep you from achieving your goals.” Negative connotation again and again.
Where does this negative connotation originate from? I am not sure. It’s obviously been passed down from generation to generation (ironically enough) a societal habit!
I do know this issue dates back well before the great teacher/philosopher William James who lectured at Harvard on the very subject and admonished his fellow teachers and students to stop regarding habit has bad – and went on to share this (excerpt, Laws of Habit, Talks to Teachers):
We speak, it is true, of good habits and of bad habits; but, when people use the word ‘habit,’ in the majority of instances it is a bad habit which they have in mind. They talk of the smoking-habit and the swearing-habit and the drinking-habit, but not of the abstention-habit or the moderation-habit or the courage-habit. But the fact is that our virtues are habits as much as our vices. All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits,—practical, emotional, and intellectual,—systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.
The second aspect is nearly as interesting. In my trip to China earlier this year a friend and I surveyed several total strangers at a market square (local Chinese) and asked them what they thought first when they heard the word “habit”. We wanted to understand their gut, initial response and associations.
Interestingly, unlike their western counterparts, they didn’t share the same negative association. In fact, associated words we heard included, “early” (as in a habit is something I want to take care of early). Even a bit stranger were words like “news” or “weather” (think patterns).
Finally, we were received with laughter if we asked outright which they might first associate with the word habit, either “good” or “bad”. The answer was “good” in every instance. In the United States however, the answer about 7 or 8 times out of 10 is still something like, smoking, drinking or drugs.
MYTH #2: “It takes 21 days to develop a habit.”
Ironically, this comes from perhaps the most popular and powerful personal development programs of all time, Pycho-Cybernetics. The author Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a brilliant man (plastic surgeon) who recognized from his own patients experience and as he observed in many amputees that they began to lose the sensation of missing limbs after around the 21st day. He posited that the neural wiring in the brain began to change after about the 21st day. Rather than perform his plastic surgery he would counsel many of his patients to work on affirmations about their own self concept, realizing that in many cases there wasn’t a real need for plastic surgery, just a self-image upgrade.
After these patients would perform his recommended affirmations he noticed that it took about 21 days and then they appeared to shed the old self-image. Unfortunately, when it comes to habit development, there is no hard-set rule or number of days required yet, you will see 21, 28, 30, 44, 66, days etc., all over the internet. Please know, the ability to develop a habit varies based upon the behavior itself, the person, the level of desire and a host of other variables. What is certain is that if you stick with the behavior and prove consistent over time you will develop the habit! (more below!)
Myth #3: In order to develop the habit you must perform the behavior for consecutive days.
Consider that if you didn’t floss for 21 days in a row you’d have to start over and try again. Really? Nope, doesn’t work that way. The only truth is you would need to continue to perform the behavior but shouldn’t consider the effort or existing performance or streak a failure if you had to skip a day.
Basically, habit formation comes as a result of repetition. While that is not the only criteria it may be the most important along with DESIRE (see more on this below). The more a behavior or thought is experienced (repeated) the greater the strength of the behavior and the likelihood of developing a habit increases.
“Habits are cobwebs at first and cables at last.” ~Chinese proverb. Repetition is critical and this is why the concept of requiring consecutive days is so often incorrectly reaffirmed throughout the web. Certainly, consecutive days are helpful but they are NOT a requirement.
A personal example I like to share is running. My knees wouldn’t like it too much if I were to try and run everyday, yet I’ve certainly developed the running habit over the years.
Myth #4: You will need to reward yourself to develop a habit.
This originates from a multitude of psychology experiments originally with lab rats who, for example, might get out a maze more quickly after each successive reward. There is even a similar experiment with a girl in a large room of books trying to locate a hidden chocolate bar. Each time she entered the room she found the chocolate more quickly.
Perhaps if you’re a rat or this young girl seeking a chocolate bar this applies to reinforcing the new behavior/habit. However, when it comes to real world habit development rest assured you don’t have to go feed yourself a pizza after you’ve studied for an hour. Or serve yourself some cake after you’ve run a mile.
In fact, what we now have learned over the last several years (particularly through feedback from The Habit Factor® app) and this is very significant, is that the act of intentionally PLANNING then performing and TRACKING a behavior becomes it’s own reward. Following the P.A.R.R. methodology for Habit formation.
Over time, this becomes a significant demonstration of self-efficacy which is really the true reward!
I know that I don’t need to eat a cookie after I’ve just run for an hour. In fact, the greatest reward I know is looking back over The Habit Factor® charts or reviewing the Nike run app chart (check out my October! 65 miles… ; )
Myth #5: You will need discipline to develop habits
When’s the last time you met a disciplined baby?
Where you born with discipline? Discipline is a result of HABIT which is developed over time.
If you had the desire to create the habit of getting out of bed by 5:30am every morning and then you intentionally planned and tracked that behavior, (P.A.R.R.) you would in fact develop that habit.
Then, in about a year or two all your friends would be talking about how disciplined you are! **Important Note: you must have the DESIRE. There are three critical aspects to habit development shared by the late, great Dr. Stephen Covey: Knowledge; you have to know how to develop/perform the behavior. Skill; you have to be physically capable of performing the behavior. And finally, DESIRE; without the desire to develop the habit, the knowledge and skill won’t amount to much. However, with the desire, chances are you would find the knowledge and figure out the skill!
Myth #6: It’s about a list or number of habits…
A bit more irony here as this is likely attributed to incredible success of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Dr. Stephen Covey. An absolutely brilliant book and man!
Unfortunately, in many cases, the success of the book has led to dozens of copycat-type books, all with a set number of habits in their title. “The 7 Habits of Successful businesses”, “The 5 Habits of Happy Fathers”, “The 12 Habits of Lazy Mothers”, “The 100 Habits of Millionaires” (a couple of these are real and others made for affect ; )
The point is this; lists are great and Covey’s Seven habits are essential, even foundational to understand. Yet, having said that, as great as his work is— it is NOT about 7 habits, or even 52 habits or, 3 habits or 49 habits. It’s about HABIT.
This remarkable force* that enables any of these habit list books to work. Understanding HABIT, what it is, why it’s so powerful (beginning with the above ideas is a good start).
Finally, let me share this. If it WERE about 7 Habits (just seven) Dr. Covey himself wouldn’t have released a sequel, “The 8th Habit” and who knows, had he lived longer he might have released, “The 9th and 10th Habit”. Again, the key is to really grasp and understand this seemingly magical force EVERYONE has been endowed with!
Until next time my friends,