Over 30 years ago, I had a bad habit of tossing my car keys on the kitchen table when I came home at night. Invariably I wasted time searching for my keys in the morning since they seldom remained on the table. To solve my problem my wife bought a key rack for me to hang on the wall just inside the front door. But I had to break the habit of tossing them on the table, and instead, hanging them on the new key rack as I entered the house. But the habit of walking into the kitchen and tossing them on the table was firmly ingrained and I continued to do so. I would walk past the key rack without even noticing it. And, I would resolve to remember next time and the next time, but I never did.
Then, I recalled reading in Maxwell Maltz’s book, Psycho-Cybernetics, that a habit is an unconscious behavior. How could I change my behavior when I was unaware of doing it at the time? Habits are formed by repetition. But how does one break a habit?
Well, Maltz said that to form a new habit you must act out the new behavior you wanted to acquire. Again, and again. In other words, whenever I tossed the keys on the table, instead of leaving them there, I would have to pick them up, retrace my steps, and hang them on the key rack, acting out the new habit I wanted to acquire. An investment of time to say the least. And persistence. Because day after day I had to double back to hang up my keys. All this activity sure brought it into my consciousness. But how long did I have to continue doing this before it became a habit?
It was then that I decided that if I were unaware of the key rack at the instant that I was passing it, I would have to bring it to my awareness. It was then that I accidentally discovered something that only recently has been proven to be an effective way of developing a habit. Originally, people thought it took 21 days to form a new habit. (A misinterpretation of Maltz’s research.) Then, more recently, it was discovered that it varied from 18 to 254 days, with an average of 66 days. But even more recently it has been proven that habits are formed based on frequency, not time.
James Clear makes this clear (pun not intended) in his book, Atomic Habits. To quote, “It doesn’t matter if it’s been 21 days or 30 days, or 300 days. What matters is the rate at which you perform the behavior. You could do something twice in 30 days, or 200 times in the same 30 days. It’s the frequency that makes the difference.”
That explained why the crazy thing I did at the time worked. Every time I walked into the house, forgetting to hang up my keys, I not only picked up the keys and returned them to the rack, but also, I immediately did it again, 15 or 20 times, walking back and forth from the kitchen table to the key rack, reenacting the identical activity until either my wife or kids insisted that I stop before they went mad. It took only a matter of days to form the new habit of hanging up my keys.
Try it. For example, if you want to develop the habit of taking off your boots before you walk into the house, put your boots back on, go back outside, and do it again and again Don’t wait until the next afternoon to repeat the process. It’s a pain in the neck, and that’s why it works. I maintain that you are sensitizing your mind to that activity, so you won’t forget to do it the next day or the next. Your mind is certainly not normally focused on the routine of taking off your boots or hanging up your keys or whatever. This repetition brings it into your consciousness.
I’ll give you another example of how I sensitized my mind to a bad habit. This happened when I was first starting to speak professionally, and I asked my wife to sit in on part of my workshops and critique my delivery. It was difficult for me because I am what psychologists might refer to as a “highly sensitive person,” and don’t take criticism well. After the first session she attended, she delivered the compulsory comment, “You did a great job,” but then came the more critical, “but you are always using the expression, ‘that type of thing.’ Most of your statements end with “and that type of thing.’”
I immediately blurted, “I don’t do that type of thing!” And we both broke out in laughter. I had been unaware of using that expression, just as I had been unaware of passing the key rack without hanging up my keys. I quickly sensitized my mind to that expression by repeating it aloud while taking my morning walk, when taking a shower, or any time that I was alone – “that type of thing, that type of thing, that type of thing…”
In public presentations, I never used that expression again. As I was about to say it, I would always stop myself in time. And eventually, it disappeared from my vocabulary. That’s what your brain does for you. Once you develop a new habit, the old one fades away from disuse. So don’t spend 66 days or more breaking a bad habit and developing a good one. Invest a half hour or so right now and get it over with.