Leadership Lessons from Ajax #17: How Long Does it Take to Form a Habit?

October 18, 2009 by Ken Nowack

“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.”
Jim Ryun


In raising Ajax, our 7-month year old guide dog puppy in training, we have learned alot again about just how long it takes to learn a new habit.  Our first guide dog puppy seemed to take forever to learn new habits but he eventually passed and was a working guide dog for many years before he was retired.

It has made me wonder about how long it takes for new behaviors to become unconscious and totally automatic.  I guess if he practices enough, he will become expert at the “sitting” behavior required of all guide dogs in training.

Ingredients for Learning a New Behavior

There is, in fact, a big difference between “experts” and those “who are expert” in what they do.

In a recent book co-edited by Anders Ericcson called “The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance”, the authors conclude that great performance comes mostly from two things:

  • Regularly obtaining concrete and constructive feedback
  • Deliberate practice

Two authors in the Cambridge Handbook (Janice Deaking and Stephen Cobley) analyzed diaries of 24 elite figure skaters to determine what might explain some of their performance success.  They found that the best skaters spent 68% of their practice doing really hard jumps and routines compared to those who were less successful (they spent about 48% of their time doing the same difficult things).

Having raw talent is wonderful but it’s what you do with it that really seems to matter.  “Only dead fish go with the flow” is an old saying–if you don’t work to get better it just doesn’t happen naturally.  Ericsson and others use the word “deliberate pratice” to mean focused, structured, serious and detailed attempts to get better.  That means it has to be challenging and difficult (i.e., practicing the most difficult tasks).

As it turns out, expert performance requires about ten years, or ten to twenty thousand hours of deliberate practice.  Little evidence exists for expert performance before ten years of deliberate practice in any field1.

How Long Does it Take for New Habits to Form?

New research by Phillippa Lally and colleagues from the UK suggest that new behaviors can become automatic, on average, between 18 to 254 days but it depends on the complexity of what new behavior you are trying to put into place and your personality2.

They studied volunteers who chose to change an eating, drinking or exercise behavior and tracked them for success.  They completed a self-report diary which they entered on a website log and were asked to try the new behavior each day for 84 days. For the habits, 27 chose an eating behavior, 31 a drinking behavior (e.g., drinking water), 34 and exercise behavior and 4 did something else (e.g., meditation).

Analysis of all of these behaviors indicated that it took 66 days, on average, for this new behavior to become automatic and a new “habit” that seemed pretty natural.  The range was anywhere from 18 to 254 days. The mean number of days varied by the complexity of the habit:

  • Drinking / 59 days
  • Eating / 65 days
  • Exercise / 91 days

Although there are a lot of limitations in this study, it does suggest that it can take a large number of repetitions for a person for their new behaviors to become a habit.  Therefore, creating new habits requires tremendous self-control to be maintained for a significant period of time before they become more “automatic” and performed without any real self-control.  For most people, it takes about 3 months of constant practice before a more complicated new behavior gets “set” in our neural pathways as something we are comfortable with and seemingly automatic.  So, adopting a new physical workout routine or learning to become more participative as a leader might take quite a while with or without coaching to truly become more natural.

Well, it explains why teaching Ajax to lay down at home might not generalize to another setting and practicing his “learned” behaviors over and over again is what makes it routine for him…Now, if I can get some of the executives I coach to understand this, I might be more successful…Be well…


[tags]guide dogs, seeing eye dogs, Guide Dogs of America, leadership, executive coaching, performance, layoff, social support, mastery, expertise, kenneth nowack, ken nowack, nowack, Envisia Learning, deliberate practice[/tags]

  1. K. Anders Ericsson, ed., The Road to Excellence: The Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts and Sciences, Sports and Games. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1996, pp.10-11 []
  2. Lally, P. et al. (2009).  How are habits formed: Modeling habit formation in the real world.  European Journal of Social Psychology, DOI: 10.10002/ejsp.674 []

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Engagement, Leadership Development

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