“The habits of highly successful people allow them to consistently perform behaviors that breed success.” – Forbes
It is often said that it only takes 21 days to form a new habit. In other words, make yourself do anything routinely for 21 days and after that period you will do it automatically- habitually. It’s a pretty powerful idea if you think about it: working at it for such a short period could make you a lifelong smoker, or finally help you quit.
When it comes to acting, it’s important to give yourself time to learn and practice new skills, techniques and material, and forging a habit to help you do that automatically can be incredibly useful.
Busting the Myth
The theory that it only takes 21 days to start a lifelong habit began with Dr Maxwell Maltz in the early 1960s. Working as a plastic surgeon, he observed a phenomenon that seemed to form a pattern. For most of his patients, it would take them around 21 days to get used to their new feature, or lack of one – whether it was a lost limb or a new face. He also began to see this in other settings too, such as it taking around 3 weeks for most people to settle into a new house.
He published his thoughts on the subject in the preface of his popular book Psycho- Cybernetics in 1960. Out of this largely anectdotal evidence was born the idea that it only takes 21 days to build a habit.
Although this idea really picked up speed, and continues to be a common belief today, scientists have been quick to disprove this theory, with UCL finding in a 2010 research study on habit formation that it took an average of 66 days for their participants to form a habit after monitoring them for 12 weeks.
In general it is agreed that it can take significantly longer than 21 days to form a new habit, and just how long depends upon the individual. However, it is still very possible to build your own habits, and you can definitely use this to your advantage.
The Importance Of Being Motivated
Before you think about how you’re going to build up useful habits, you need to consider what behaviour you really need to work on and why, whether this be in the acting world or not.
Once you have a clear idea of the ‘thing’ you want to put into your daily routine, and really understand why you want it and how it will be useful to you, building the habit itself will be easier, and you will find yourself far more motivated.
For example; say you want to get in the habit of jogging every day. You may decide to do this because you generally want to be healthier. However that thought alone is unlikely to get you through the long process of creating a habit out of it.
Instead you need take some time to think about why you really want to jog every day: perhaps it will give you some breathing space from work, or help you get in shape for a role. Imagine yourself having achieved your goal of making that habit and how much better you are for it. Having that image of a future, better you, will give you something to aim for, and a reason to keep going when it’s cold outside and your legs still ache.
Getting In The Habit: How To Achieve It
So you know what habit you want to add to your routine and how it will benefit you. You also understand that it may take you longer than the expected three weeks to get there, but still believe it’s worth it. So how does one build a habit?
1. Start Simple
Whatever your habit of choice, go easy on yourself. If you want to spend some time every day practicing affective memory, for example, gradually build up the time you give yourself for it. So on day one, put aside two minutes, then four minutes for day two and so on. Starting slowly allows you to settle the habit into your routine nicely, without putting too much of a strain on yourself.
2. Fit it into your existing routine
For a habit to stick it needs to find a place in your daily routine that doesn’t disrupt any of your usual activities. Waking up early to do yoga instead of getting your usual 8 hours sleep, for example, is a habit that won’t even last a week due to the disruptive effect it would have. Instead find a gap in your day, and perform the habit consistently at this time. You are far more likely to be successful, and you should feel no negative or irritating changes in your daily life as a result.
3. Trigger it with other behaviours
When you’re fitting something new into your routine, an obvious problem may occur: you might simply forget about it. As a result, it can be a useful trick to set up ‘behaviour chains‘. All habits are triggered by cues, and understanding this means you can use it to your advantage. So if you want to create the new habit of writing a blog post before bed, for example, you can train yourself to think of your blog whenever you put on pyjamas. Pretty soon the cue will be automatic and you will reach straight for your laptop without even having to think about it.
4. Eliminate other options
This can be understood easily enough: if you want to eat healthier, throw away all the junk food in your house. Likewise, if you want to practice an acting technique for an hour in the afternoon, turn off your phone and avoid other similar distractions. Taking away your option to ‘cheat’ is can be one of the best ways to ensure a habit sticks.
5. Don’t expect to be perfect
There will be days when you forget to practice your chosen behaviour, or even days you can’t face it: in such circumstances you should never give up. After all, you’re only human, and you aren’t a machine with useful habits built in. Try again the next day, and things will become easier, even if they don’t seem to be at first. Be patient and soon your habit will help you to become the person you truly want to be.