Thoughts on the stages of a new habit

IMG_8438At the Oakland Grill counter. Post steak salad lunch, on a warm and sunny Friday. Avoiding my daily writing task.

I took on writing daily but have not been hitting the daily part just yet. I’m maybe every other day, or every third day now. Which is a big up-stat anyway.

It seems that anytime we take on something new, we go through some stages trying to get reliable and skilled. The first stage is clearly just about remembering to do the new thing and why we even are attempting it. Keeping the idea and inspiration alive is critical here.

The second stage seems to be about the design and fit of where the new thing goes in our lives. In this second stage, we struggle with times and places that don’t work, until we finally settle on one that does. I think there’s a fair amount of bouncing between the first two stages until we develop some habits and consistency.

In the the third stage we are consistently at work on the new thing but just not very good at it yet. This stage is all about developing our skill and capacity in the new thing. We are getting stronger in the third stage, even if it’s sometimes not obvious. Consistent tracking and review can reveal our progress and improvements.

A danger in this third stage is having our new regular habit, or practice, getting displaced by some big life event, like holidays, emergencies, travel, or any other interruption to our routine that lasts a week or more.

The fourth stage is about identity and the beginning of mastery. In the fourth stage, we start to see as ourselves as BEING the new thing. We go from running, to being runners, or from writing, to being writers. In this stage, the once new thing starts to enter the other parts of our lives and soon becomes a core part of our identity.

The fifth and final stage is about mastery. In the fifth stage, the new thing has gone from being part of our conscious identity to being something that we do without thinking, as automatically as breathing. It’s not that we have perfected the new thing, or become best at it, but the once new thing is now the always-was-thing and we have to be reminded and think back to what it was like before we started. In this stage we simply do, and be, without a second thought. We run, we write, and we do all the other things, just because that’s who we are now.

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Neil Manchester - July 31, 2014 Reply

I think also that a habit takes time to form. Consistently doing the thing for a few days doesn’t make it a habit. But three weeks seems to make the behaviour stick. Any thoughts on why this is?

    Bill Gallagher - July 31, 2014 Reply

    The 3 week threshold is often quoted but I think it’s a myth. In my personal experience, and with people I coach, 3 weeks is not nearly long enough to change a lifetime of other habits. I try to think of any new thing as a lifelong pursuit and give up worrying about the end. Eventually it just becomes natural, but years is more the timeframe, not weeks.

    Cathy dixon - November 13, 2014 Reply

    I worked for years helping people change habits and realistically it takes 90 days to really change habits. 30 days is a goal post. I think the 21 days is a bit of a myth and not sure evidence based. Habits (bad ones), really change when you get to the root of why that is established. Without that work we swap one avoidance habit for another. I work on core beliefs supporting emotions and then the new habit which has a chance of being established and maintained.

Catherine - July 31, 2014 Reply

Hi Bill, I like this, and it fits with a lot of my own experience. Looking at things like new year’s resolutions, so many fail in the very early stages. I note your comment about remembering why we are even doing it in the first place. Do you use any particuilar techniques to help you with this stage?

    Bill Gallagher - July 31, 2014 Reply

    It is an important stage! I do whatever it takes to remember the inspiration, and not just the action, at the right time. It could be an photo tacked over my desk, or a note on my dashboard, or a longer reminder in my calendar. One of the most helpful things I do is to have the people around me pulling for the new thing.

Marilyn Edelson - August 1, 2014 Reply

I agree the 3 weeks is a myth. The science I believe is it takes 3 weeks to form a new neuron but habits consist of millions of new neurons.

The most important aspect in my experience of coaching hundreds of people is to help people “fail forward.” In other words, to help them not be discouraged by “failing” but to stop, learn and make necessary adjustments to make the new habit stick. That was my own experience giving up smoking 30+ years ago. I did well for 2 years but had that one cigarette and was off smoking again the next day. That lasted another 2 years until a challenge from a co-worker (We were the last 2 smokers left.) to stop on Cancer Society Smoke-out Day (11/15) got me to say to myself, “I will never, never, never, never, never, ever. . . again.” and that stuck. I now think of myself as a non-smoker; in fact, don’t even recognize the woman who was that smoker.

Mel - August 22, 2014 Reply

I deliver the 7 habits of highly effective people and am constantly frustrated that most organisations want to deliver this in a 2/3 day programme and that’s it!!!
Firstly it’s not a cheap programme and secondly… Is this not missing the point?

When I deliver and review the programme with teams over a 6/7 month period they are starting to implement and review it and influencing their other teams to the point when I leave that they are embedding the habits and processes and using this to review improving forward performance. Most send me communications that personal resilience in the team has dramatically increased and so has performance moving forward a year after the programme.

The 3 weeks is a minimum I think for a personal habit in daily practice to become a natural daily activity because of high motivation. With smoking.. Breaking years of automated behaviour that has numerous in depth anchors around the stimulants can be many years of conscious choice. Like the previous comment I also took up smoking again for a further to years before giving up having done a 3 year non smoking stint before that… And it was accepting a cigarette when under the influence of alcohol. Which was the hardest part of that habit for me to break. Yet getting back into the routine of exercise seems to have a 3 week threshold for me.

Again, we are all individual so various habit creation is down to motivation, inspiration, support, challenge and initial conscious awareness and overcoming sudden disruptions.

Good article.

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