Form New Habits

Want to succeed at better managing your money. You can if you understand that like everything else you do, money management is nothing more than a habit. Habits can be good (like managing your finances) or bad (like not managing your finances), but habits aren’t easy to make or break.

For years psychologists thought that it took 21 days to make or break a habit. But, even after following this guideline so many people still failed to reach their objective. Now new evidence shows that the timeline is much longer at 66 days.

The 21 day guideline is credited to a 1960 plastic surgeon. Dr Maxwell Maltz. Dr. Maltz noticed that amputees took, on average, 21 days to adjust to the loss of a limb and he argued that people take 21 days to adjust to any major life changes.

A paper recently published paper in the European Journal of Social Psychology reports the results of a study conducted by Phillippa Lally and colleagues from University College London. The study followed 96 people who were interested in forming a new habit Lally et al. (2009). Participants were asked daily how automatic their chosen behaviours felt. These questions included things like whether the behaviour was ‘hard not to do’ and could be done ‘without thinking’. On average a plateau in automaticity was reached after 66 days and it was concluded that the action was now habit.

But it’s not the same for everyone. Results were anywhere from 18 days up to 254 days in the habits examined in this study. The variance comes from the individual and the type of habit. The less pleasant the action, the longer it took to become a habit. The good news is that missing a single day did not reduce the chance of forming a habit. So if you’ve vowed to start taking a daily vitamin, missing one day won’t cause a need to start over.

So why does it take so long? Researchers at MIT were curious so they’ve studied habits as well. They found that “Habitual activity–smoking, eating fatty foods, gambling–changes neural activity patterns in a specific region of the brain when habits are formed. These neural patterns created by habit can be changed or altered. But when a stimulus from the old days returns, the dormant pattern can reassert itself.” That’s why it’s so easy for us to fall off the wagon.

It takes some personal persistence to stick with something new, but it’s not impossible to retrain those neurons into accepting postive behavior.

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