I’ve found it best to spend at least one month exclusively on one habit before moving to the next. For example, let’s say you want to wake up earlier, exercise more often, and introduce a new organizational system at work. You recognize that your current habits for sleep, health, and work are slowing you down, and you want to make some positive changes.
If you’re like most people, you’ll start by tackling all three at once. This might even work, for a short time. But after a week or two, something will cause you to slip with one of these new activities. In the beginning you’re relying entirely on willpower, so when a behavior slips, it goes back to the default behavior you had been using before.
A smarter strategy is to implement each new habit successively, focusing on just one new habit a month. The first month you focus on waking up earlier. The second month on regular exercise. The third month on a new system for your work. Although thirty days may not be enough time to form a new default habit (one study suggests sixty-six days as a median time for habituation6), it will at least mean the habit requires less effort to pick back up in case of a setback.
The next insight for changing habits is called classical conditioning. This is a basic psychological principle first discovered by Ivan Pavlov through his famous experiment with dogs. Pavlov would ring a bell and then bring his dogs food. Soon enough, the dogs would salivate after hearing the bell, anticipating food. This salivation would continue even if the food never arrived, showing that the dogs automatically associated the sound of the bell with a meal.
Consistency means that you try to do a habit the same way each time. Imagine you wanted to set up a deliberate practice routine, where you work on a tough skill you’re trying to master for your career. Let’s say you want to commit to working on it for around three hours per week. One way you could do this is to do one hour, three days per week, when you have time. Some days you might do it before work, other days after; sometimes on weekdays and sometimes on weekends. This may work, but it’s hardly consistent. As a result, the habit will take a lot longer to become automatic. Instead, imagine that you spent thirty-five minutes each day immediately after work on that skill. Now the behavior is very consistent. It takes place on the same days, in the same conditions, in exactly the same fashion. It won’t be long before doing your practice routine after work becomes an automatic part of your day.
Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career (The 99U Book Series) by Jocelyn K. Glei, 99U