Three Surprising Myths for Health Habit Changes
It is frustrating to know that a sizable number of diseases and deaths are preventable with changes in lifestyle: 80% of heart disease and stroke; 80% of type 2 diabetes; and 40% of cancer. There is a huge opportunity to change people’s health by following what we know works for habit change.
Those are big numbers.
I just finished teaching a graduate course to nutrition students on using apps and social media for changing client behaviors. I take students through all the ins and outs of behavior theory and models. Yes, a little dry, but it is all part of understanding the complex business of habit change. I won’t bore you with details except to say most of us are going at it all wrong.
If you are thinking of changing your habits, any habits, I want to dispel three myths I have seen over and over in publications both on and offline.
1. Pump Up Your Motivation
First, motivation is always high when you set a goal or intention to change a habit, but I can guarantee it will quickly dwindle after a couple weeks. I realize the intent is good and hope can play a role in simplifying what it takes to change a habit.
Any article that asks you to increase your motivation is setting you up for failure. I have even seen articles tell readers to toughen up and fight through it. Wow, that sounds more like bootcamp to me than habit change.
Some methods for habit change encourage you give yourself a reward to boost your willpower. That might work, for a little while. But to change a habit the behavior must happen in autopilot. Once you stop the reward, what then?! And if you struggle with a habit without a reward, is it really a habit? A habit is a behavior that is repeated regularly and occurs involuntarily.
Unless we are faced with a life-threatening situation, most of us have what I like to call wimpy willpower. So no matter how much motivation you have when you write your goal, the odds of it disappearing in the near future are really good.
2. Twenty-One (21) Days for a Habit to Form
The whole 21 days for a habit to form is way off. The 21-day myth began as a misinterpretation of the plastic surgeon Dr. Maxwell Maltz’s work on self-image.
Dr. Maxwell Maltz was a plastic surgeon in the 1950s. When Dr. Maltz would perform an operation — like a nose job, for example — he found that it would take the patient about 21 days to get used to seeing their new face. Similarly, when a patient had an arm or a leg amputated, Dr. Maltz noticed that the patient would sense a phantom limb for about 21 days before adjusting to the new situation or habit.
Dr. Malt published his findings in 1960 saying that, “These, and many other commonly observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.” This is how the whole 21 days started.
The problem with even well done research on the number of days it takes to form a new habit is the data is true only for that method of habit change and for that specific habit.
Say you have two habits you want to start for the New Year: eating a low-fat diet and flossing your teeth daily. Both are habits, but one is dealing with an area of your life that has multiple conscious and unconscious factors at play – eating food and the other is associated with your predictable morning routine. It is ridiculous to think you can change both these habits in the same time frame.
I don’t want to leave you hanging there though. I know you can form a habit in much less than 21 days. It depends mostly on two key habit factors: how tiny the habit you are starting is and how consistent the anchor you are pairing the habit with is.
▣ Habits can form in MUCH LESS than 21 days ▣
3. Only One Habit at a Time
The idea is it’s impossible to change multiple habits at the same time. FALSE. Writers will tell you that when you are trying to do multiple habits at once you leave your willpower in a weakened state. This is true if willpower or motivation is part of your formula for changing the habit.
You have a finite amount of willpower that you use throughout the day. I use most of my willpower to keep calm with my kids, especially from 4 – 7pm at night. I don’t want to use mine up for changing habits.
Let me turn the tables a little and ask, What if you could change your habits without motivation? Then you would not need to save up your motivation for one habit change. You could then work on multiple habits at once.
I want to help you change your habits using proven methods that are easy to do. We are what we repeatedly do – our habits. If you want to change your health, then you need to change your habits. If you want to be successful with your health, the key is to create habits that make it easy to do the behavior you want for great health and create habits that make it hard to do the wrong things for your health.