Everyone is seeking the critical habits for success. But the most crucial habit for success is not a habit at all. It’s something else.
How Long Does It Take to Build A Habit?
For over four years, I have maintained a daily practice of “fitness first”: my workout is the first thing I do each day. I wake up, I lace up my sneakers, and I move my body, either at the gym, if one is available, or in some other place. Fitness first is a daily practice.
One of the most common questions that people ask me, especially regarding fitness and meditation is:
How long does it take to build a habit?
My standard answer was: I’ll let you know when it becomes a “habit.”
When I first started my daily fitness practice, I, too, wondered: how long does it take to build a habit?
Like many people, I had always thought fitness and meditation (among other activities) were habits. I participated in several challenges that promised to help me build the habits I desired: 21-day meditation; 30-day fitness; 30-day writing challenge; 10-day clean-eating; and so on. But I generally did not sustain the activity much beyond the conclusion of the challenge. Soon enough, I reverted back to my old ways.
Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience.
Most Habits That We Desire to Build Are Not Habits
The epiphany came to me when I was about 45 days into my fitness first streak: this is not a habit. For sure, there were elements that were “habit;” for example, putting on my gym clothes when I wake up. In the bigger picture, however, the act of walking out of my home and going to the gym was not a habit. The same holds true for activities like meditation, daily writing, and keeping a daily journal.
I realized that most of the “habits” I and others wanted to build are not habits at all. At first, I would refer to them as “practices;” I still do, and they are.
Eventually, as I created more practices and started to see the bigger trend in how these new “activities” were shaping my life, I hit on a better term: Rituals.
Habits vs Rituals
Many people use “habits” and “rituals” interchangeably. They speak of their “morning rituals” in one breath, and in the next talk about their “morning habits.” I try to be as specific as possible with my word choice. Language is important; the words we use convey meaning. To me, rituals and habits are distinct.
Habits: Automatic Response to a Trigger
Habits are automatic responses to a given trigger. What defines a habit is that we do it without thought. Habits require no decision. In fact, this is one of the reasons we often want to “create habits:” we want to eliminate decisions.
Most often, when we talk about building a new habit or breaking a bad habit, we mean a “habit of action.” Habits of action include things like: hitting the snooze button when the alarm goes off or checking your phone each time it pings (or even if it doesn’t ping). Not all habits are “bad;” putting your key on a hook when you walk into your house is also a habit (if you develop it as such, and do it without thinking).
We also have habits of thoughts, emotions, and physical response: patterns of thinking or feeling that occur in response to a stimulus or trigger. If you’ve ever felt yourself get angry while sitting in traffic, that’s an emotional habit. If you’ve heard your inner critic ask “what’s wrong with you?” as you struggled with something, that’s a habit of thought. The butterflies in your stomach that you feel before a big moment are a physical habit.
All habits work together and inform each other.
Rituals: Intentional Action
A ritual is an action performed with intention, purpose, and awareness.
On many levels, rituals look like habits. As with habits, rituals are performed in a given context. What defines a ritual — and distinguishes it from a habit — are the elements of awareness and conscious intention.
Rituals Need Not Be Religious
My sense is that people often shy away from the term “rituals” because we often link rituals with religions or cults.
Although rituals in these contexts can teach us a lot about how we can use ritual in our lives, I don’t associate rituals purely with religion. My “ritual stack” includes some rituals of my religion, and it includes many secular activities as well, such as:
- lighting candles before your dinner party, or before you get into the bath
That said, my study of rituals in the context of religious observance has informed my understanding of the power and purpose of ritual.
How Habits and Rituals Interact
To state it most simply: rituals are mindful, and habits are mindless.
Although people tend to focus on how long it might take to create a habit, the better question is: how long does it take to break a habit?
Here’s the truth: it much harder to break a habit than to create a habit.
There’s a lot of truth in the saying “old habits die hard.”
Consider that the average person checks their smartphone over 50 times a day. How long did it take you to develop the habit of checking your phone that frequently? You might not even know because it just happened. You likely were not even aware of how often you reached for your phone even as you developed the habit. And now, you almost certainly aren’t aware of how often you reach for it.
If you decide to break that habit, you will suddenly become very aware of how often you reach for your phone. I can go hours without checking my phone, but the moment I start, I notice how much I return to it. I notice because I constantly train myself to be aware. Yet, I know that for every time I notice the habit, there are many other times I do it without noticing. Nobody is perfect. Bringing that awareness to a habit is half the battle, but it’s a big battle.
Rituals Can Help Build or Break Habits
When I speak about rituals and habits, I like to be clear that it isn’t an issue of competition: rituals vs habits. The point is to be aware of what we are doing.
Often, we use the language of “habits” to refer to practices that we desire to create and sustain for the foreseeable future.
But many of our habits are not healthy, and often sabotage our success. In my personal practice, I have focused as much — if not more — attention on breaking habits. In fact, that’s how my journey began.
To break sabotaging habits, we need more than sheer willpower and discipline. Willpower only works where we have conscious awareness of our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. The intentionality behind rituals helps us bring our awareness to the context that triggers the habit, as well as the end behavior or thought.
Once I discovered how rituals work in relation to habits, I was able to leverage that power to create better habits.
Rituals Support Our Standards
The most successful people hold themselves to a standard and live in integrity with that standard. They harness the power of ritual to live with intention, not in reaction.
The most crucial habit for success is not a habit at all. It’s the skill of creating rituals.
If you enjoyed this article and want to diver deeper into habits and rituals, you will definitely enjoy The Ritual Revolution. This program is a culmination of over 2 decades of my personal experience with breaking and creating new habits, and my work helping clients create sustainable transformation through rituals. Participants in this program create sustainable and empowering rituals that boost productivity, heighten awareness and create more meaning and purpose in life. That may sound like a big promise; in truth, it’s only the start. Beneath the surface of how to create sustainable practices is a level of deeper work that uncovers and eradicates the fears and resistance that keep you stuck. The next session will open for enrollment in the coming weeks. To receive notice when enrollment opens, please register at http://theritualrevolution.com. If you simply cannot wait until then or desire more personal attention, I’d be happy to discuss how I can help you.