How to form a habit: I give it three weeks.

So here we are, three weeks into the New Year, which is about the time people start to either completely abandon or completely embrace their New Year’s resolutions as a way of life. I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions. It feels a little cliche and forced to me and I prefer to set goals when the timing feels appropriate or when I reach a point where it’s necessary to make a change in some aspect of my life. I think the reason so many people don’t keep their New Year’s resolutions is because they were goals created out of obligation in the first place. Obligation is not a very strong motivator for most people. You gotta want it.  But hey, if flipping the page to a new calendar year is a good excuse to give yourself a kick in the pants, then by all means, keep making those resolutions and more power to you! 

The number one New Year’s resolution people make? To be healthier. Whether that’s eating healthier or being more active, most people have some desire to make their health a priority. So today I want to talk about setting goals. Or, rather, let’s talk about habits. Because I don’t think being healthy should be a goal with an end result in mind, but an ongoing way of life. So instead of thinking of being healthy as a “resolution,” let’s think about creating a new lifestyle and forming new habits.

Did you know it takes about three weeks to form a new habit? For me, that fact is both daunting and liberating at the same time. It means I can’t expect any instant gratification: changes don’t happen overnight. But it also means you can give yourself some grace if you slip up on Day 2, and you can still get back up on day 4 or 7 and still keep your resolution. And it means that if you make it over the hump of the first three weeks, then it’s all downhill from there.

About two and a half years ago, when I decided I was going to start running, this idea of “three weeks” is what kept me going. Before my running days, you couldn’t PAY me to run around the block. I went through all of college without even so much as running to catch a bus. But then one day, something prompted me to try it, despite my aversion (okay, I’ll admit. It was no overwhelming desire to run that gripped me: instead it was the frugal, recent college graduate in me that refused to pay for a gym membership after being spoiled with free access to a fitness center at my university. I thought running would be an inexpensive form of exercise. Hah! I can hear the elite runners snickering now…) So one day, I laced up my cobwebbed Wal-mart sneakers and hit the sidewalks. After a block, I thought my lungs were going to explode and that my legs would give out beneath me. I slowed to a walk. Then I started running again. I continued this walk-run pattern for about a mile and then decided I had had enough. Running was just not for me. But then, for some unfathomable reason, I tried again the next day. I told myself to go slow and just keep going. I made it almost a whole mile at a steady jog. The next day, I could barely get out of bed I was so sore. Again, I vowed that running was just not for me. But on Day 4, I remembered this statistic that it took three weeks to form a new habit. So I decided that, if after 21 days I still hated running, I would never force myself to do it again. For those three weeks, I exercised every ounce of discipline I had in me to keep running, even just a mile, every other day. Three weeks passed, and it became easier and easier to lace up my shoes and go. After 6 weeks, I was comfortably jogging about 3 miles, 4 days a week. I went to a specialty running store and got fitted for good running shoes, which made it even easier to go longer distances.  Six months later, I decided to train for a race. Two months after that, I completed my first half-marathon. One year later, I ran my first marathon. What began as a discipline quickly turned into a habit, and then an obsession, and is now a full-blown addiction (Yes, I go through withdrawals if I go too long without running). The last time I saw my doctor for a check up, she listened to my heart and said, “Ah, you must be a runner.” I secretly beamed inside. “Oh, well, I mean, I go running sometimes, but I wouldn’t call myself a runner, per se….” (Now I boast the title with pride. Me! A runner! Two years ago I would have laughed in your face if you told me I would one day run a marathon…and actually LIKE it).

I share this story with you not to brag or to say that it was easy. People often ask me what they should do if they want to start running, and I usually say, “Left foot, right foot. Repeat.” In all honesty, the best advice I have for new runners is just to take the first step. Start SLOW…don’t worry about your speed. And, just give it three weeks. (Oh, and getting fitted for really good shoes doesn’t hurt either!)

I also don’t mean to say that running is for everyone, because it’s not. You either love it or you hate it, and it’s too miserable a thing to do to your body if you don’t absolutely love it. But I do want to say this: you have the power to create a change in your own life. This doesn’t just apply to running, or eating healthier, but for any habit that you want to create. Just give it three weeks. And then maybe three more. You just may surprise yourself. It may also help to know that while it takes on average three weeks to form a new habit, it takes only about five days to un-do a previously established habit . These could be made-up statistics, I don’t really remember where I heard them. (I recently looked it up and found there’s some speculation as to the amount of time it takes to form a new habit because, wouldn’t you know it, we’re all different.)  It may not be a hard fact, but for whatever reason it was motivation for me to keep going.  I think setting any sort of time frame, whether it’s two weeks or two months, is a good way to make a short term goal that can turn into a habit. For example, to bring it back to eatable food, maybe you’re trying to give up processed foods, or to include more greens in your diet. Try just thinking, “I’m going to give up processed foods for one week,” or, “I’m going to have something green every day for four weeks.” After that short amount of time, if it still hasn’t turned into a habit, set another short-term time-based goal. Eventually, I promise, it will become habit. And the beauty of habits is that you don’t have to think about it or be as disciplined anymore. After a while, you won’t crave the processed foods as much, and you may actually start to crave those greens! And then you can just forget about it and live your life. You have the power to create new habits and form a new way of life.

Did you make any New Year’s resolutions, and if so, how’s it going? I’d love to read your comments and hear your stories about new habits you have or want to form. And, if you haven’t, how about making a “It’s-the-third-week-of-January” resolution instead? Now is as good a time as ever to commit to your health. You don’t need to wait until next New Year’s to roll around. As some wise Hallmark greeting card creator once said, “There’s no time like the present.” Or maybe he said, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” Whatever he said, just find a reason that motivates you. Do it because you want to, not because you ought to.

So for those of you who have reached this point in the New Year and have endured with your resolutions, keep it up! You’ve made it past the three week mark and have probably kept it going because your discipline has started to form into a habit. And if you have abandoned your goal, oh well. If you gave it your all for three weeks and it’s not a habit by now, then maybe you didn’t really want it and just felt obligated to make a resolution in the first place. BUT, if you do still want to make a change, start over! Forgive yourself, move on, and just give it three weeks.