They say it takes 21 days to form a new habit. Thankfully, this outdated 1950’s theory that has no scientific backing is starting to be seen for what it really is: pure nonsense. You may find that after 3 weeks you’re able to stick to simple pledges you’ve made like drinking more water or eating an extra serve of vegetables each day. But in reality, it will likely take much longer to successfully rewire your brain and make big changes in your life.
There is some research suggesting that habit-formation can take place within the wide range of 18 to 254 days. It really depends on the individual, the type of habit they’re seeking to develop and environmental factors like work and family life.
So I’m not going to sit here and tell you how productive you should be during this time of self-isolating and social distancing. You don’t need to learn how to play the banjo or become a pro at still life drawing (although both those talents would be quite impressive).
The large array of articles and blogs that have appeared in recent weeks about what we ‘should’ be achieving during our time in lockdown is a little concerning. And the ever-increasing number of writers suggesting we should be taking the other approach and binge Netflix while gorging on cookies is equally disturbing. What we need now is balance. A healthy concoction of self-love and pro-activity.
Let’s use this ‘extra time’ that has been given to us to start building healthy new habits. I used to be all about the all or nothing approach. If I wasn’t stuffing my face with a pint of ice-cream and a bag of salt and vinegar chips I was eating a salad with no dressing. But these days, I take the small steps approach. And from personal experience, small steps are the best way to form a healthy new habit.
Given that it can take as long as 8 months, and even longer for some people, the expectation that you are going to be able re-wire your brain and change your ways in a few short weeks is unrealistic and potentially damaging. But given that a lot of us currently have extra time at home, now is the perfect time to get started. Think of a few healthy habits you would like to work towards and try to make small adjustments in how you go about your day and your routine. If you’re aiming to start a daily yoga practice, start with 5 or 10 minutes in the morning or before bed. If you want to learn French, try slotting 15 minutes of vocabulary and pronunciation into your day.
If you fall off the wagon after a week, or maybe even on day 2, don’t sweat it. Give yourself permission to make mistakes, embrace your imperfections and remember that these incremental improvements are all part of the healthy habit journey.
So rather than expecting yourself to emerge from this period of isolation with a long list of new skills and talents under your belt, let it be the stepping stones on a new path of wellbeing and positive change.