Why 66 is the new 20
How to automate a new habit in 66 days
Have you ever heard that it takes 20 days to incorporate a new habit?
On and off over the years, I have tried to start a daily yoga practice. Many times I made it to the magic 20-day mark. But for the life of me, I could not get the habit to stick beyond that point.
I have proof that I am not the only person who has a problem establishing a new habit. When I belonged to a gym, I hated going in January due to the crowds of new members or returning lapsed members all pumped up to get in shape in the new year. But a few weeks or months later, the gym was back to the regulars.
I find it reassuring that I am not the only one having problems making a habit stick, but slightly depressing as well. Why couldn’t I — and so many others like me — make our desired habits stick?
More time required: 44 more days to be precise
One of the reasons is that I did not give the habit enough time to stick. Everything that I had read or heard up to that point told me that a new habit would be mine in a mere 20 days. But in fact, I needed to sun salute for 44 days longer than I had.
Instead of 20 days, researchers at University College London found that an average of 66 days was required for a new habit to take hold. That is almost four times as long to make a habit automatic!
The answer is this simple question: Why?
For years, my yoga teachers and yoga magazines I read encouraged me to start a daily practice. I had all the information I needed on how to start. And I did so with gusto.
But I hit a snag. I had the how, but not the why. I had not internalized why I wanted a daily yoga practice in the first place. So it shouldn’t surprise me that I did not keep it up longer than 20 days.
The WHYs in my life right now are the fundamental ways that I want to feel each day. (These feelings are what those who use the Desire Map process refer to as core desired feelings.) I do not choose to start a habit unless it helps me feel the way I want to feel.
I am happy to report that I now have a yoga practice of 15 minutes (or more) most days of the week. Choosing “most days” instead of “every day” helps me to feel free, one of my core desired feelings, to skip practice when it does not feel right.
Plus, I now approach each time on the mat with my core desired feelings in mind. I feel curious about what my body needs that day. Next, I use my creative side to choose which sequences of poses will meet my needs that day. Knowing that I get to sink into savasana and feel both a sense of deep connection and relaxation is now usually enough to motivate me to practice.
Here is a surprising truth: A habit is not what you thought it was
I had no idea that habits are a three-part neurological loop — a habit loop — comprised of a cue, routine, and reward. I learned this surprising truth from Charles Duhigg in his book, The Power of Habit.
Cue or trigger
Habits first have a trigger that tells the behavior to start. It puts our brain in automatic mode. Duhigg found that all cues fall into one of five categories:
- Time of day
- Emotional state
- Presence of other people
- Immediately preceding action
In previous attempts to establish a yoga practice, I did not consider the cue at all.
Routine, habit or the behavior itself
Before learning about the habit loop, the behavior itself was what I considered the habit. The daily yoga practice was the habit. But I was wrong. The routine is just one of three parts of the habit. According to Duhigg, routines can be physical, mental or emotional.
The reward is how our brain learns to want to repeat the behavior and cause the entire habit loop to form. For example in my yoga practice, resting in savasana at the end is my reward.
Cue first, reward next, routine last
To illustrate the habit loop, Duhigg gives the example of brushing your teeth. The cue to brush my teeth is that my mouth feels disgusting. The routine is the act of brushing my teeth. The reward is that my mouth feels minty fresh and clean after I brush my teeth.
When I read this, it all seemed so obvious and straightforward. Why didn’t I know this before?
Previously, I always started with the routine itself. I never put any thought into the cue. Do you? Sometimes I considered a reward. After all, who does not like a reward?
On the count of three: My attempt at the habit loop
I am trying to start a writing habit this year. To do so, I am now working out how to use the habit loop to help me establish this habit. Here are some ideas to get me started.
Incorporating the five categories of cues:
- Where am I? Standing at my standing desk with only my writing application open
- What time is it? The first time I open my laptop for the day
- What’s my emotional state? Calm after taking three deep breaths
- Who else is around? No one. I’m an introvert after all.
- What action preceded me coming to my desk? I ate breakfast.
Routine itself: Write for 1 hour or 1,000 words
Reward: Drink a cup of milky black tea with sugar. As the water boils, mark off completing the routine on my Soulful Habit Tracker worksheet.
I hope that if I keep this up long enough, I won’t have to decide to write each day. Instead, it will become an automatic habit.
Here’s an idea. Another reward for my writing habit would be if you let me know you liked this piece. Please give it some applause or follow me on Medium.
Check out the following resources:
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- Visualization audios, worksheets, and videos
- An introduction to The Desire Map, a tool for holistic living, and it’s creator, Danielle LaPorte
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