Why Creating A New Habit Is So Hard

This post, from Alex Schleber, originally appeared on his Business Mind Hacks blog on 9/30/09. It seems particularly apt with so many Publetarians trying to get into the habit of writing every day to complete their NaNoWriMo novels!

Leo Babauta of ZenHabits.com recently writes in his post The Habit Change Cheatsheet: 29 Ways to Successfully Ingrain a Behavior:

3. Do a 30-day Challenge. In my experience, it takes about 30 days to change a habit, if you’re focused and consistent. This is a round number and will vary from person to person and habit to habit.

Often you’ll read a magical “21 days” to change a habit, but this is a myth with no evidence. […] A more recent study shows that 66 days [may be] a better number […] But 30 days is a good number to get you started. Your challenge: stick with a habit every day for 30 days, and post your daily progress updates to a forum.

The reason why it takes at least around 30 days to form a new habit is a process in the brain called "myelination".

It’s the process of your mind forming a certain kind of sheathing around the neurons involved in a habitual thought or behavior, which acts in a way like electrical insulating tape: It makes the electrical impulses travel faster, thereby speeding up the functioning of the entire neural network involved.

Myelin is a whitish substance that actually gives the brain its typical color. Now before your eyes glaze over about this Brain Biology 101 stuff, think about why this is so important for all manner of changing old behaviors into new ones:

When a mental block of any kind is released, or on old way of doing things is unhinged, the new neural network connections that formed to make this happen are extremely tender at first. "Green shoots" are rock solid by comparison.

This is why a new behavior feels so difficult at first: It isn’t ingrained yet.

Due to the lack of the myelin the signals are traveling slowly and precariously. But if you keep at it and thereby keep tracing the new path, your mind will get the message and "grease the groove" of that neural network. Until the speeds are up to 200 times faster!

Only problem is, it takes at least 30 days to complete myelination to the extent that the new habit is really starting to become a habit. Anytime before then there is the danger of the new habit formation being abandoned. And of course, the myelination process may continue for quite some time after the first 30 days.

Read the rest of the post, which includes a link to a related article by Daniel Coyle, on Business Mind Hacks. And hang in there, NaNoWriMo’ers: by the end of November, you’ll have a completed novel and an ingrained writing habit!

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