What consistent actions are you making to reach your greatest potential as a leader? Whether it’s waking up early to set up the day ahead or developing a strong time management practice grounded in essentialism for increased productivity, daily habits drive high performers toward their biggest goals. As thought leader Lewis Howes illustrates, “I have learned that champions aren’t just born; champions can be made when they embrace and commit to life-changing positive habits.” Every all-star must commit to a daily practice in order to improve over time and reach the pinnacle of their success. The world’s top entrepreneurs and executives are no different. Just like elite athletes, they have to put in the daily work to fulfill the vision of the leader they want to become. But how long does it take to form a habit?
Learn more below about what habits are, how they’re created, and the top ways to make them stick.
What is a Habit?
A habit is a behavior or action that becomes part of a person’s daily routine. Habits are regularly performed, unconscious actions that cannot be easily broken. Positive habits can motivate elevated performance. Take, for example, a leader who develops the habit of smiling at every person they meet. Over time, greeting people with a smile becomes natural and the leader is perceived as warm and friendly.
Why Is It Important to Have Daily Habits?
Habits Move People Closer to Their Goals
Great habits are intentional—they direct people toward transforming into the person they want to be. This might look like developing a daily yoga practice, meditating each day, or working out in the afternoon to manage stress. In these examples, the intention behind the practice is to manage and eventually master emotions. The point is: Habits need to get you closer to the visualization of your ideal self. To do this, ask yourself, “What do I need to do each day to achieve this vision?” For instance, Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook never leaves the office after 5:30 p.m. so she can be an active parent. This type of self-awareness helps busy leaders focus on aligning their actions with their top goals.
Leadership is a Practice
Additionally, great leaders don’t emerge without first developing a leadership routine they regularly practice. As writer Will Durant puts it, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” He means a person’s behavioral patterns determine whether or not they can become the best in the world at what they do. Take Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group. He writes in a blog for the company one of his habits is carrying a notebook with him everywhere he goes. “My secret ‘life hack’ has also been to write it down! I can’t tell you where I’d be if I hadn’t had a pen on hand to write down my ideas as soon as they came to me,” he writes when describing his daily routine. This daily practice has helped him become recognized as one of the most creative, innovative leaders alive today.
Consistent Positive Actions Become Unconscious Motivators
Finally, positive habits challenge us to show up, even when we lack the drive, energy, or motivation. Leadership isn’t an easy job, and it can take an emotional and even physical toll on a person. Even during these times, habits act as a driving force that reminds someone to keep pushing forward. It’s also helpful to create positive self-care habits that protect high performers from burnout, fatigue, and exhaustion. This might look like setting a habit to stop working every day by 6:00 p.m. or getting at least eight hours of rest per night.
How Long Does it Take to Form a Habit?
It goes without saying, these daily actions require consistent work. So, exactly how long does it take to form a habit? In 1960, Dr. Maxwell Maltz published Psycho-Cybernetics, in which he stated, “It usually requires a minimum of 21 days to effect any perceptible change in a mental image.” Over time, public speakers and thought leaders used this sentence to back the idea that it takes 21 days to form a habit. This led to the common misconception that habits form in about three weeks.
More recently, research from Dr. Phillippa Lally found a more accurate answer to how long it takes to form a habit. She and her team discovered, on average, new behavioral patterns become “automatic” in 66 days. Yet, these results were solely dependent on the person being observed. Some people only needed 18 days, while others required 254 days. It goes to show there’s no standard amount of time it takes to form a habit. The process of developing positive habits is unique to each individual. What really matters is the dedication and resolve a person has to follow through on these actions each day.
Understanding How Habits Develop Over Time
Habits form through what researchers call the habit loop. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes, “This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental, or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.”
When thinking about how to develop a habit, it’s important to remember the process of the cue, routine, and reward. Cues can be anything from the time of day, a smell, a sound, or an emotion. For instance, this might look like setting an alarm at 12:30 p.m. to take a break and hit the gym for an afternoon workout. A routine is the action being performed. In this example, it would be working out. Lastly, the reward is what trains the brain to desire the completion of the action each day. In this example, the reward could be a green juice or smoothie. Over time, these consistent actions strengthen neural pathways in the brain and eventually become unconsciously driven.
3 Ways to Make Sure a Habit Forms
Getting a habit to stick is easier said than done. So, what does a person need to do to set themselves up to succeed? Below, find three of the best strategies for integrating habits into your daily routine.
1. Get Clear on How to Habit Aligns with a Tangible Goal
Purpose and positive habits go hand-in-hand. A person won’t commit to a positive behavior unless there’s a motivational reason to do so. Think about why the action being performed is a crucial part of achieving a particular goal. For instance, say the habit you want to develop is to practice delivering speeches in front of a mirror for 10 minutes each morning. What is the end goal? Why does doing this action matter? In this example, it might be sharpening public speaking skills to gain more influence as a skilled speaker people enjoy listening to. Thinking about the purpose of developing a new habit helps leaders to live more intentional lives.
Additionally, when goals line up with habits, life becomes more harmonious and balanced. As writer and director Deborah Day advises, “To feel more fulfilled, your actions and activities need to be in alignment with what you deem important.” When purpose drives habits, a person starts experiencing the growth needed to become the greatest version of themself.
To establish habits that align with your goals:
- Create a list of your top priorities and objectives. For example, this might look like “building a great team culture where people feel like they belong.”
- Reverse engineer your goals by year, quarter, month, week, and day. What is something you need to do every day to make the objective reality?
- Establish the action that moves you closer toward accomplishment. Using the example above, a leader working on team culture could provide positive, inspirational feedback to at least one employee per day.
2. Practice Visualization
It is scientifically proven that goals are more likely to be fulfilled when they are visualized. As stated by psychologist Charles A. Garfield: “I’ve discovered that numerous peak performers use the skill of mental rehearsal of visualization.” Establishing a visualization practice is important when developing habits because it prepares the mind for success. During a multisensory visualization practice focused on developing a positive habit, a person might see, hear, and feel what it is like to perform this action. They can also imagine their progress as they reach the end goal they desire.
When developing habits, imagine the completion of your habit loop at least once a day. For example, after waking up, run through the implementation of positive behaviors. What cues do you have in place? What does the process of fulfilling the habit look like? How will you reward yourself? Anticipate new patterns of behavior before they even occur.
Here’s a few more tips for visualization:
- Set aside at least 10 minutes each day for mentally rehearsing your habit.
- Find a comfortable, quiet space where you can either sit or lie down. Listening to calming music might help you enter into a more focused, meditative state.
- Hone in on the details and produce clear mental images as your mind develops views of the future.
- Think about how you feel as you’re doing the routine actions you visualize. What changes have you experienced in your mind, body, and spirit after positive habits were completed?
Learn more about visualization.
3. Get an Accountability Partner
The last tip in making a habit stick is having an accountability partner. Research shows people are more likely to keep a commitment when they make it to another person. A study conducted by the Association for Talent Development found that there’s only a 25 percent chance a person will follow through on a conscious decision to pursue an idea or goal. Yet, when someone makes an accountability appointment with another person, the successful implementation changes to 95 percent.
Having an accountability partner is one of the best ways to ensure positive daily habits form because they’re usually close friends, family members, co-workers, or mentors. Because you care about and value these people, the idea of not letting them down is a motivating factor. Accountability forces a person to be responsible, and in the words of Winston Churchill, “The price of greatness is responsibility.” Taking ownership with the help of a friend reinforces a person’s ability to maintain the process of forming their habits.
When working with an accountability partner:
- Choose the right person. Make sure they will hold up their end of the bargain by motivating you to take ownership while inspiring you to reach your goals.
- Define what success and failure each look like.
- Determine how and when you’ll be rewarded for keeping your commitment.
- Create a set of repercussions. For example, this might look like having to practice the habit twice for every day that’s missed.
- Ask if there is something you can offer to hold them accountable for. It’s great to feel equally supported in an accountability partnership.
- Establish a time to check in daily with one another.
Find out more about accountability and owning responsibilities.
Make the Process of Developing Positive Habits Enjoyable
The process of developing a positive habit should be something to look forward to every day. Remember, the best way to train the brain to develop a habit is through rewards. To reinforce your behavior, outline a staggered rewards system for each day, week, and month you maintain your goal. Schedule rewards in your planner each week. Every day, you’ll have something new to gain from practicing your habit. Also, diversify the rewards—they don’t need to be the same every day. Whether it’s a long, relaxing walk or a treat like a cup of coffee or a healthy snack, give yourself a daily motivator. Finally, create a huge reward at the end of the year that pushes you toward achievement. For instance, this might look like taking a two-week vacation or making a big purchase you’ve been saving up for (if it’s within your budget).
But, how does a person know when something becomes a habit?
As best-selling author Stephen Covey writes, “Habit is the intersection of knowledge (what to do), skill (how to do), and desire (want to do).” Once a person fulfills all three categories, they’ve formed a habit. After a habit develops, the brain wants to perform the defined daily action because it fears consequences like guilt, anxiety, and other negative emotions. Think about how you’d feel if you missed a day of brushing your teeth. When this action isn’t performed, it feels like something is wrong. Positive habits that build great leaders such as daily learning and development are no different. If the habit truly forms, the mind will send out an alert signal.
Interested in more ways to reach your full potential as a leader? Check out this list of the top leadership qualities and how to develop them.