In the last lesson, we talked about how habits subtly undermine our best intentions. In this lesson, I want to talk about how to form a positive new habit.
On Friday, I went to the doctor for my annual physical. I have lost 16 pounds since my last visit 4 months ago. My bad cholesterol is down and he told me that it was remarkable to lose 8 percent of my body weight in 4 months.
How did I do it?
First, I ate right. That is no surprise. Most dieters try to eat differently, but I am not dieting. I simply decided I would eat for health rather than taste. I found that, very often, food that tastes good makes my body feel bad and the food that doesn’t taste so good makes my body feel good.
Second, I decided that the low-hanging fruit in eating right was to eat a healthy breakfast. I decided to eat oatmeal every day with the alternative of a protein shake for the sake of variety. In fact, I am eating oatmeal right now as I write this.
Now, I should explain something. I don’t like oatmeal, but I have eaten a few large containers of it in the last few months. Because the entire point of this effort is to actually eat healthfully, I skipped the cream, sugar, honey, chocolate, and butter, but I found that fruit (e.g., chopped apple, strawberry, blueberries) or yogurt made it palatable. I don’t care for banana in oatmeal (and peanut butter in oatmeal is just nasty).
I also ate real oatmeal, not the individual packet that contains more sugar than oatmeal. That too would defeat the purpose.
Initially, I cut out foods that I knew to be bad for me for at least 21 days.
Third, after the initial 21 days, I liked how I felt, I saw that I had lost some weight, and I felt a lot better. I gained momentum toward continuing down this path. Such momentum is key to goal attainment.
Harvard’s John Kotter is one of the world’s leading experts in change. Kotter would call these results “small wins.” Small wins generate big results because they generate the momentum to keep going.[1] Kotter’s model focuses on organizational change rather than personal change, but the concept of small wins is still valid. If you wish to make personal changes, you must achieve small wins along the way.
Fourth, I initially set out to eat clean for 21 days. Twenty-one days is a strange, arbitrary number that we have fixed in our heads. The number comes from Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon who wrote a popular early self-help book, entitled Psycho-Cybernetics. In the book, he claimed that it takes 21 days to create a new habit. He wrote:
Habitually, you put on either your right shoe first or your left shoe. Habitually, you tie your shoes by either passing the right-hand lace around behind the left-hand lace or vice versa. Tomorrow morning, determine which shoe you put on first and how to tie your shoes. Now, consciously decide that for the next 21 days you are going to form a new habit by putting the other shoe on first and tying your laces in a different way. Now, each morning as you decide to put your shoes on in a certain manner, let this simple act serve as a reminder to change other habitual ways of thinking, acting, and feeling throughout that one day (emphasis added). [2]
Maltz had no scientific data to support the 21-day concept. As a plastic surgeon, it was his observation that “it requires a minimum of 21 days of an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.”[3] Notice that it took a minimum of 21 days, and this was for someone to form a new mental image (e.g., to see themselves differently after plastic surgery). That has little to do with habit formation or what academics call automaticity.
A 2010 study on automaticity by researchers at University College London found that the average time for habit formation was 66 days. That time estimate could vary widely depending on what habit you were trying to form—anywhere from about three weeks to just over eight months. A passive activity such as drinking more water will take less time than an active habit such as exercising regularly.[4]
Being aware of this kind of research, I was vigilant in my efforts. I knew that in the early stages, habits are fragile, so I made sure to get the oatmeal habit right. After a while, the process became reflexive. Now, each morning when I wake up, I start making oatmeal without thinking about it in the same way that most people put on a pot of coffee. The decision was made. I don’t think about it. My habits are driving my actions.
I have maintained this pattern since June. The only day that I did not eat oatmeal (or my alternative protein shake) was the morning that the power went out during hurricane Dorian and I was actually disappointed that I couldn’t eat my morning oatmeal.
There is a fifth key to this process of automaticity—will power. I did not talk about will power, but that is the topic of the next lesson.

What About You?

Have you tried to develop a new pattern but fell short? Was it because you did not continue long enough to develop a habit? What kind of habits do you need to adopt?


[1] Kotter, J.P. (2012). Leading change. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
[2] Maltz, M. (1960) Psycho-Cybernetics. New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc. (p. 109).
[3] Maltz, M. (1960) Psycho-Cybernetics. New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc. (p. xiv).
[4] Lally, P., Van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., Potts, H.W.W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How habits are formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 998-1009. Retrieved from