How long does it take to develop a new habit? The time period can range from a single second to several years. The speed of new habit pattern development is largely determined by the intensity of the emotion that accompanies the decision to begin acting in a particular way.
Many people think, talk about and resolve to lose weight and become physically fit. This talk may go on for years. Then one day, the doctor says, “If you don’t get your weight down and improve your physical condition, you’re in danger of dying at an early age.”
Suddenly, the thought of dying can be so intense or frightening that the individual immediately changes his diet, begins exercising, stops smoking and becomes a healthy and fit person.
Psychologists refer to this as a “significant emotional experience,” or a “SEE.” Any experience of intense joy or pain combined with a behavior can trigger a new behavior pattern that may endure for the rest of a person’s life.
For example, putting your hand on a hot stove or touching a live electrical wire will give you an intense and immediate pain or shock. The experience may only take a split second.
But for the rest of your life, you’ll possess the habit of not putting your hand on hot stoves or touching live electrical wires. The habit will have been formed instantly and will endure permanently.
According to the experts, it takes about 21 days to form a habit pattern of medium complexity.
By this, we mean simple habits such as getting up earlier, exercising each morning before you start out, listening to audio programs in your car, going to bed at a certain hour, being punctual for appointments, planning every day in advance, starting with your most important tasks each day or completing one task before you start something else.
These are habits of medium complexity that can be quite easily developed in about three weeks through practice and repetition.
How do you develop a new habit? Over the years, a simple, powerful, proven methodology has been created for new habit development. It’s very much like a recipe for preparing a dish in the kitchen — you can use it to acquire any habit you desire.
Over time, you’ll find it easier and easier to develop the habits you want to incorporate into your personality.
Take a look at the 7 steps to a new habit.
1. Make A Decision
Decide clearly that you’re going to begin acting in a specific way 100 percent of the time. For example, if you decide to rise early and exercise each morning, set your clock for a specific time; when the alarm goes off, immediately get up, put on your workout clothes and begin your exercise session.
2. Never Allow An Exception
Don’t make exceptions to your new habit pattern during the formative stages. Don’t make excuses or rationalizations. Don’t let yourself off the hook. If you resolve to get up at 6 a.m. each day, discipline yourself to get up at 6 a.m. every single day until it becomes automatic.
3. Tell Others
Inform people around you that you’re going to begin practicing a specific behavior. It’s amazing how much more disciplined and determined you’ll become when you know others are watching you to see if you have the willpower to follow through on your resolution.
4. Visualize Yourself
In your mind’s eye, see yourself performing the desired behavior. The more often you visualize yourself acting as if you already had the new habit, the more rapidly this new behavior will be accepted by your subconscious mind and become automatic.
5. Create An Affirmation
Repeat the affirmation over and over to yourself. This repetition dramatically increases the speed at which you develop the new habit. For example, you can say something like, “I get up and get going immediately at six each morning!” Repeat these words right before you fall asleep. Most mornings you’ll automatically wake up minutes before the alarm clock goes off, and soon you’ll need no alarm clock at all.
6. Resolve To Persist
Keep practicing the new behavior until it’s so automatic and easy that you actually feel uncomfortable when you don’t do it.
7. Reward Yourself
Most important, give yourself a treat of some kind for practicing the new behavior. Each time you reward yourself, you reaffirm and reinforce the behavior. Soon you begin to associate, at an unconscious level, the pleasure of the reward with the behavior.
You set up your own force field of positive consequences that you unconsciously look forward to as the result of engaging in the behavior you have decided upon.
This story originally appeared in Entrepreneur. Image courtesy of Hero Images/Getty Images.