The conventional wisdom is that it takes 21 days to change or create a habit, although new research suggests that it can take much longer. I have always been really interested in the relationship between routines and habits. Routines are based on habitual behaviors while habits themselves can exist outside of routine. For example, I have a habit of biting my lip. I do this regardless of the time of day or whether or not I am driving or watching tv; it’s just something I do. It is a habit that is not influenced by the rhythm of my day.
One of the things about moving to a new house and a new place is that so many of our routines were changed. I have written extensively over the last few months about how moving or transition can be an opportunity to integrate new habits or cut out things that don’t serve you. Lately, I have been thinking about reward systems for new habits. An example of this would be a meditation practice. Students always want to know how they will be able to tell that this habit of meditation is “working.” In any workshop or class this is always a tricky question. How do we encourage a habit or create a routine when there is no clear timeline or obvious payoff?
I used to tell students that the reward would be that they would be more available to the present moment, more awake to the nuances and habits of their own minds. I still believe that this is true, but it is the kind of answer that implies that without a formal meditation practice you are sleepwalking through life. This is not at all true. Meditation, yoga or a routine quiet activity or period of reflection is an important habit to introduce into every day simply because time moves extremely fast. I find that my days are a blur of activity, much of it shaped by routine. Every morning our house bustles until the last door has slammed and then it is completely quiet. Then every afternoon it again swells with movement and noise until everyone has eaten, fulfilled their last commitments of the day, brushed their teeth and then fallen asleep — only to do it all again the next day.
If we don’t build time into every day to reflect or slow down we are simply riding a wave of routine, which will happily carry us day after day, week after week. By taking time each day to stop moving, or to walk, run, swim, with total attention to the present moment, we are actually stepping outside of the rhythm of routine for just a moment. Taking that time is the closest thing that I have ever found to a reset button, taking a chance to step back and make sure that we are really experiencing things rather than just orchestrating them. A routine is an orchestrated set of habits that keeps your life running smoothly, but if you don’t examine it you can very easily lose touch with the fulfilling and exciting parts of an ordinary day.
I encourage everyone to add in something new for 21 days, some new challenge that shakes things up a little. It can be a meditation practice, or a change to your exercise routine. It can be learning a new skill that requires concentration, just something out of the ordinary. Twenty one days may not be the magic number but it is certainly a start. If our routines are running the show, it’s only because we let them. Introducing new habits, challenging ourselves to shake things up a little bit will bring a freshness and a vitality to everything we do.