Habit making, habit breaking and the myth of 21 days
Wouldn’t we all like our students to learn English habitually? To come back home and just, like that, open their books, laptops, notebooks, dictionaries and study…study…study… Well, dream on! If it’s not their habit, the process will take quite a while.
Good old brain!
Habit formation is the process by which new behaviours become automatic. If you instinctively reach for a cup of coffee the moment you wake up in the morning, you have a habit. By the same token, if you feel inclined to grab the remote control and turn on TV as soon as you get home, you’ve acquired a habit. Old habits are hard to break and new habits are hard to form. That’s because the behavioural patterns we repeat most often are literally etched into our neural pathways. The good news is that, through repetition, it’s possible to form new habits (and maintain them as well).
Hold on, hold on – but how long?
Are you one of the teachers who try to persuade the students that a learning habit, just like any other habit, is formed in 21 days? Well, it is a common myth. And so are the magical 30 days. Or 7. It’s remarkable how often these timelines are quoted as facts. Dangerous lesson: If enough people say something enough times, then everyone else starts to believe it. It makes sense why the “21 Days” myth would spread. It’s easy to understand. The time frame is short enough to be inspiring, but long enough to be believable. And who wouldn’t like the idea of changing your life in just three weeks? So what’s the real answer? How long does it actually take to form a new habit? Is there any science to back this up? And what does all of this mean for you and me?
This is what science says
Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher at University College London, in a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, decided to figure out just how long it actually takes to form a habit. The study examined the habits of 96 people over a 12-week period. Each person chose one new habit for the 12 weeks and reported each day on whether or not they followed the behaviour pattern and how automatic the behaviour felt. Some people chose simple habits like “drinking a bottle of water with lunch.” Others chose more difficult tasks like “running for 15 minutes before dinner.” At the end of the 12 weeks, the researchers analysed the data to determine how long it took each person to go from starting a new behaviour to automatically doing it.
The answer? On average, it takes more than two months before a new behaviour becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact. And how long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behaviour, the person, and the circumstances. In Lally’s study, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit. In other words, if you want to set your expectations (towards yourselves or towards your students) appropriately, it will probably take you anywhere from two months to eight months to build a new behaviour into your life – not 21 days.
Should your students find inspiration in this long road?
First, there is no reason they should get down on themselves if they try learning English habitually for a few weeks and it just doesn’t become a habit. It’s supposed to take longer than that! Second, your students don’t have to be perfect. Making a mistake once or twice has no measurable impact on your long-term habits. This is why they should treat failure like a scientist, give themselves permission to make mistakes, and develop strategies for getting back on track quickly. And third, embracing longer timelines can help them realize that habits are a process and not an event. All of the “21 Days” hype can make it really easy to think, “Oh, I’ll just do this and it’ll be done.” But habits never work that way. You have to embrace the process. You have to commit to the system. Understanding this from the beginning of learning (and teaching) makes it easier to manage your expectations and commit to making small improvements — rather than pressuring into thinking that you have to do it all at once. Where should you start with your students or yourself? At the end of the day, how long it takes to form a particular habit doesn’t really matter that much. Whether it takes 10 days or 100 days, you have to put in the work either way. The only way to get to Day 100 is to start with Day 1. So forget about the number and focus on doing the work.
The reality is, habits are easier to make than they are to break. If you repeat a behaviour often enough, those synaptic pathways are going to get worn in. The human brain is a very adaptive piece of machinery. Breaking a habit is a lot more complicated, because while parts of those worn-in pathways can weaken without use, they never go away. They can be reactivated with the slightest provocation. If you’ve ever tried to quit smoking, you already know this. You can go a year without a cigarette, and then give in one time and BAM, the habit comes right back. The best you can do, then, is to form a new, parallel pattern, like exercising when you feel stress, rather than indulge the old pattern, which triggers “cigarette” in response to stress.
And one last note: habit-building and many other interesting brain-friendly, teachingrelated issues will form elements of one of the modules of PASE’s Akademia Trenera Języków. More on www.pase.pl.