Brain Pickings

How Long It Takes to Form a New Habit

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Why magic numbers always require a grain of empirical salt.

“We are what we repeatedly do,” Aristotle proclaimed. “Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state,” William James wrote. But how, exactly, do we rewire our habits once they have congealed into daily routines? We already know that it takes more than “willpower.”

When he became interested in how long it takes for us to form or change a habit, psychologist Jeremy Dean found himself bombarded with the same magic answer from popular psychology websites and advice columns: 21 days. And yet, strangely — or perhaps predictably, for the internet — this one-size-fits-all number was being applied to everything from starting a running regimen to keeping a diary, but wasn’t backed by any concrete data. In Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick (public library) — which also gave us this fascinating read on the psychology of self-control — Dean, whose training is in research, explores the actual science of habits through the existing empirical evidence on habit-formation. He cites one influential study that gives a more concrete answer to the elusive question of how long it takes for a new habit to take root:

In a study carried out at University College London, 96 participants were asked to choose an everyday behavior that they wanted to turn into a habit. They all chose something they didn’t already do that could be repeated every day; many were health-related: people chose things like “eating a piece of fruit with lunch” and “running for 15 minutes after dinner.” Each of the 84 days of the study, they logged into a website and reported whether or not they’d carried out the behavior, as well as how automatic the behavior had felt.

This notion of acting without thinking — known in science as “automaticity” — turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, to be a central driver of habits. And it helps illuminate the real question at the heart of this inquiry: How long did it actually take for people to form a habit? Dean writes:

The simple answer is that, on average, across the participants who provided enough data, it took 66 days until a habit was formed. As you might imagine, there was considerable variation in how long habits took to form depending on what people tried to do. People who resolved to drink a glass of water after breakfast were up to maximum automaticity after about 20 days, while those trying to eat a piece of fruit with lunch took at least twice as long to turn it into a habit. The exercise habit proved most tricky with “50 sit-ups after morning coffee,” still not a habit after 84 days for one participant. “Walking for 10 minutes after breakfast,” though, was turned into a habit after 50 days for another participant.

What’s more, when researchers plotted the results, they found a curved relationship between habit and automaticity — meaning that the earlier repetitions were most beneficial for establishing a habit, and gains gradually dwindled over time. Dean explains:

It’s like trying to run up a hill that starts out steep and gradually levels off. At the start you’re making great progress upwards, but the closer you get to the peak, the smaller the gains in altitude with each step.

Indeed, the slowing down of gains was especially pronounced among some participants, to whom habit-formation simply didn’t seem to come naturally — so much so, that the researchers were surprised by how slowly some habits seemed to form:

Although the study only covered 84 days, by extrapolating the curves, it turned out that some of the habits could have taken around 254 days to form — the better part of a year!

What this research suggests is that 21 days to form a habit is probably right, as long as all you want to do is drink a glass of water after breakfast. Anything harder is likely to take longer to become a really strong habit, and, in the case of some activities, much longer.

While the finding may at first appear disheartening, it’s actually oddly assuring in reminding us that habit, like genius, is merely a matter of doggedness and “deliberate practice” — in fact, this brings us to the lesser-cited yet pivotal second half of Aristotle’s famous dictum: “Excellence … is not an act but a habit.”

Making Habits, Breaking Habits, which goes on to explore such fascinating facets as the difference between habit and intention, the key to getting off autopilot, and how to break out of habitual loops, is remarkably insightful and functionally helpful in its entirety. Complement it with the proto-treatise on the subject, William James’s famous meditation on habit, which includes his three rules for the successful formation of new habits.

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How to Lower Your “Worryability”: Italo Calvino’s 1950 New Year’s Resolution

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“I would like this to signal the end of ‘wasted angst’ in my life.”

What does it mean to live well, live fully? For most of us, it’s an intricate balancing act that involves enough ambition to grow and enough equanimity to keep ourselves from worrying all the time, about everything. The latter is a mental fallibility especially detrimental amidst a culture entranced by constant worries about productivity and unable to find refuge in presence.

In a beautiful January 1950 letter to his friend Mario Motta, found in Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 (public library) — one of the best biographies and memoirs of 2013, which also gave us Calvino’s advice on writing, his prescient meditation on abortion and the meaning of life, his poetic resume, and his thoughts on America — the 26-year-old aspiring writer lays out this wonderfully timeless and universally resonant resolution for a better, more present and worry-free life:

I would like this to signal the end of “wasted angst” in my life: I’ve never regretted anything so much as having particular individual worries, in a certain sense anachronistic ones, whereas general worries, worries about our time (or at any rate those that can be reduced to such: like your problem in paying the rent, for instance) are so many and so vast and so much “my own” that I feel they are enough to fill all my “worryability” and even my interest and enjoyment in living. So from now on I want to dedicate myself entirely to these latter (worries) — but I am already aware of the traps in this question and that’s why for some time now my first need has been to “de-journalistize” myself, to get myself out of the stranglehold that has dominated these last few years of my life, reading books to review immediately, commenting on something even before having to time to form an opinion on it. I want to build a new kind of daily program for myself where I can finally get into something, something definitive (within the limits of historical possibility), something not dishonest or insincere (unlike the way today’s journalist always behaves, more or less). For that reason I make several plans for myself: … to maintain my contacts with reality and the world, but being careful, of course, not to get lost in unnecessary activities; and also to set up my own individual work not as a “journalist” any more but as a “scholar,” with systematic readings, notes, comments, notebooks, a load of things I’ve never done; and also, eventually, to write a novel.

That year, Calvino focused his efforts on The Cloven Viscount, which was published in 1952 — a fantasy novel Calvino remarked in another letter was “written to give [his] imagination a holiday after punishing it” with the ill-fated unpublished book that preceded it.

Complement Calvino’s meditation with this fantastic 1934 guide to the art of not worrying and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter about what to worry vs. not worry about in life, then revisit other famous New Year’s resolutions from Jonathan Swift, Susan Sontag, Marilyn Monroe, and Woody Guthrie.

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On a Beam of Light: The Story of Albert Einstein, Illustrated by the Great Vladimir Radunsky

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The charming visual tale of an introverted little boy who grew up to become the quintessential modern genius.

Given my soft spot for picture-book and graphic-novel accounts of famous lives, including Charles Darwin, Julia Child, Hunter S. Thompson, Richard Feynman, Ella Fitzgerald, and Steve Jobs, I was instantly taken with On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein (public library). Written by Jennifer Berne and illustrated by none other than Vladimir Radunsky — the same magnificent talent who brought young Mark Twain’s irreverent Advice to Little Girls back to life in 2013, which topped the list of the year’s best children’s books and was among the year’s best books overall. This charming picture-book tells the tale of how an unusual and awkward child blossomed into becoming “the quintessential modern genius” by the sheer virtue of his unrelenting curiosity.

The story begins with Albert’s birth — a beautiful but odd baby boy who turns one and doesn’t say a word, turns two, then three, and nary a word.

Instead, he “just looked around with his big curious eyes,” wondering about the world. His parents worried that there might be something wrong, but loved him unconditionally. And then:

One day, when Albert was sick in bed, his father brought him a compass — a small round case with a magnetic needle inside. No matter which way Albert turned the compass, the needle always pointed north, as if held by an invisible hand. Albert was so amazed his body trembled.

Suddenly, he knew there were mysteries in the world — hidden and silent, unknown and unseen. He wanted, more than anything, to understand those mysteries.

This was that pivotal spark of curiosity that catapulted his young mind into a lifetime of exploring those mysteries. (One can’t help but wonder whether a similar child, today, would have a similar awakening of mind while beholding a smartphone’s fully automated GPS map. But, perhaps, that modern child would be developing a wholly different type of intelligence.)

Young Albert began asking countless questions at home and at school — so much so, that his teachers chastised him for being a disturbance, admonishing the little boy that he would get nowhere in life unless he learned to follow the rules and behave like the other kids. And yet the mysteries of the universe drew Albert deeper into inquiry.

One day, while riding his bicycle, he gazes at the rays of sunlight beaming from the Sun to the Earth and wonders what it would be like to ride on them, transporting himself into that fantasy:

It was the biggest, most exciting thought Albert had ever had. And it filled his mind with questions.

So he set out to answer them by burying himself in books, reading and discovering the poetry of numbers, that special secret language for decoding the mysteries of the universe.

Once he graduated from college, unable to find a teaching position, he settled for a low-key, quiet government job that allowed him to spend plenty of time with his thoughts and his mathematical explorations, pondering the everyday enigmas of life, until his thoughts coalesced into ideas that made sense of it all — ideas about atoms and motion and space and time. Soon, Albert became an internationally celebrated man of genius.

But with that came the necessary amount of eccentricity — or at least what seemed eccentric from the outside, but is in fact a vital part of any creative mind. Albert, for instance, liked to play his violin when he was having a hard time solving a particularly tricky problem — a perfect way to engage the incubation stage of the creative process, wherein the mind, engulfed in unconscious processing, makes “no effort of a direct nature” in order to later arrive at “sudden illumination.”

Some of his habits, however, were decidedly, and charmingly, quirky: He regularly wandered around town eating an ice-cream cone, and he preferred to wear no socks — not because he tried to be a pseudo-nonconformist, but because he “even chose his clothes for thinking,” often clad in his signature “comfy, old saggy-baggy sweaters and pants.”

Still, everywhere he went, he remained mesmerized by the mysteries of the universe, and the echoes of his thoughts framed much of our modern understanding of the world:

Albert’s ideas helped build spaceships and satellites that travel to the moon and beyond. His thinking helped us understand the universe as no one ever had before.

And yet the central message of this altogether wonderful picture-book is that despite his genius — or, perhaps, precisely because of it — Einstein’s greatest legacy to us isn’t all the answers he bequeathed but all the open questions he left for today’s young minds to grow up pondering. Because, after all, it is “thoroughly conscious ignorance” that drives science and our understanding of life.

The final spread, reminiscent of these illustrated morphologies of Susan Sontag’s favorite things and Ronald Barthes’s likes and dislikes, captures Einstein’s life in eight essentials:

Complement On a Beam of Light with Einstein on why we are alive, on science vs. religion, and his timelessly encouraging words to women in science in this letter to a little girl who wanted to be a scientist.

Images courtesy of Chronicle Books © Vladimir Radunsky

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