So you’ve made the decision to make a change and create a new habit or get rid of an old one! You’ve established your ‘start date’ and you’re ready to make headway on engraining the new neural pathways required to make a long term change. The first hurdle of course is getting through those first challenging 21 days, then, you’ve done it, the worst is behind you and you’re on the home road to change and Masterville here we come. Well, that may have been case a few years ago, however according to a new study from the University College London (UCL) states that it does in fact take much longer than 21 days to create a new habitual patterns. This makes sense considering most years, by March/April, we find our new year’s resolutions lingering as a ghost of the distant past.
BREAKING THE CYCLE
So what actually is a habit and how is it defined? Habits are considered as a set behaviour frequently performed automatically over a repeated period of time. Consequently the mind creates a connection between the repeated cue and the corresponding behaviour automatically enacted where the conscious mind, and subsequently, the conscious decision, is eliminated. The habit is then entrenched by cyclically repeating the habit because we perform a particular behaviour without thinking becoming so automatic that sometimes we don’t even remember enacting the behaviour.
It makes sense then, that the very patterns and energy to break a habit is required to create a new one, repeating behaviour over a consistent period of time, catalysed by the conscious mind and a conscious decision to make the change and repeating this change over a long period of time. Breaking old, unhealthy habits is extremely challenging, and the presence of new habits doesn’t necessarily mean that the old ones cease to exist, but what it does mean, is that the new habits must become more powerful in their influence on behaviour.
Who exactly then stated that 21 days was the magic number to make or break a habit? According to the UCL, they believe this may have come from Dr Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon turned psychologist and author of ‘Psycho-cybernetics’. Maltz established the 21 day figure since it took an average of 21 days for a patient to adjust to their new face post cosmetic surgery and when a limb is amputated, phantom limb pain can persist up to 21 days. He believed a minimum of 21 days was required for “an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell”. More recent research conducted by the University College London in 2012 contradicts this by suggesting that it does in fact take 66 days to form a new habit. Participants in this study were tracked for 84 days measuring automaticity of repetitive chosen behaviour. The measure of when automaticity was also the point at which the habit had been formed and deep rooted measure on average at 66 days!
THE HABIT OF YOGA
From a yoga philosophy perspective Patanjali clearly defines this exact hypothesis as abhyāsa-vairāgya-ābhyāṁ tan-nirodhaḥ. Patanjali clearly states in his 196 aphorisms, that the state of yoga can only be attained through consistent practice, without attachment to the outcome, over a long period of time. This means that you need to make a conscious decision each day to your chosen healthy habit and create new neural pathways until that habit become so automatic you don’t even need to think about it. As yogi’s, one area this comes up for us is in our dedication and commitment to a daily practice and we yearn for this to be established because our practice is something that contributes such positive energy to all areas of our health and lives.