Leo Babauta of ZenHabits.com recently writes in his post The Habit Change Cheatsheet: 29 Ways to Successfully Ingrain a Behavior:
3. Do a 30-day Challenge. In my experience, it takes about 30 days to change a habit, if you’re focused and consistent. This is a round number and will vary from person to person and habit to habit.
Often you’ll read a magical “21 days” to change a habit, but this is a myth with no evidence. […] A more recent study shows that 66 days [may be] a better number […] But 30 days is a good number to get you started. Your challenge: stick with a habit every day for 30 days, and post your daily progress updates to a forum.
The reason why it takes at least around 30 days to form a new habit is a process in the brain called “myelination”.
It’s the process of your mind forming a certain kind of sheathing around the neurons involved in a habitual thought or behavior, which acts in a way like electrical insulating tape: It makes the electrical impulses travel faster, thereby speeding up the functioning of the entire neural network involved.
Myelin is a whitish substance that actually gives the brain its typical color. Now before your eyes glaze over about this Brain Biology 101 stuff, think about why this is so important for all manner of changing old behaviors into new ones:
When a mental block of any kind is released, or an old way of doing things is unhinged, the new neural network connections that formed to make this happen are extremely tender at first. “Green shoots” are rock solid by comparison.
This is why a new behavior feels so difficult at first: It isn’t ingrained yet.
Due to the lack of the myelin the signals are traveling slowly and precariously. But if you keep at it and thereby keep tracing the new path, your mind will get the message and “grease the groove” of that neural network. Until the speeds are up to 200 times faster!
Only problem is, it takes at least 30 days to complete myelination to the extent that the new habit is really starting to become a habit. Anytime before then there is the danger of the new habit formation being abandoned. And of course, the myelination process may continue for quite some time after the first 30 days.
So to be successful, you absolutely need to tough out those first 30 days. Set yourself up to practice the new habit during that time, despite the fact that it will seem too hard.
One of the strategies for doing so is to create physical changes in your environment that make it nearly impossible to ignore the new situation, e.g. recently when I wanted to stop falling asleep on my favorite couch at night watching TV, I laid a chair on that couch to block it. Did the trick instantly.
I also quit caffeine cold turkey a few weeks ago (more on that in another post), and the first step to make that happen was getting rid of the coffee paraphernalia in my kitchen, and replacing them with great herbal teas I like, asf.
Also, your Unconscious Mind is typically most impressed with actual, physical changes in the environment. No amount of lists, affirmations, or even visualizations will have as much of an impact as the new thing staring you straight in the face.
Put it in your own way. Make it impossible to ignore.
Get over that first 30 day hump, and you are basically home free. It’s like a rocket launch, most of the fuel is burned up to reach escape velocity. After that you’re cruising.
Simply knowing that this is the case should increase your chances of success, because now you can plan for it. New habit formation resistance is to be expected.
Beat it to the punch. By understanding the myelin between your ears.
(UPDATE: Just found this fascinating and detailed discussion of myelination on Google Books Search: The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. – Daniel Coyle.)