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Clueless Part 2: How to Effectively Form and Sustain New Habits

By and

Wed Aug 08 2012

Clueless Part 2: How to Effectively Form and Sustain New Habits-777442b90ff3f5bc26a29241c35853c2bcca5f9807d58fd7cbaf060d3fc8ebfe

Have you ever tried to form or change a habit? How many times have you set New Year’s goals to make a change (exercise, eat healthy, and so on), but slipped back into your old habits within a couple of months.  

In Clueless Part 1, we introduced the Three E Model (Enlighten, Encourage, and Enable) as a way to facilitate the process of successful behavioral change. Let’s explore some of the challenges and methods for forming new habits, which are specifically highlighted within the Enable section of the model.  


So, how do we help clients become effective in actually acquiring new habits and making them automatic?

Ingredients for Learning a New Behavior 

There is, in fact, a big difference between “experts” and those “who are expert” in what they do. Research by K. Anders Ericcson and colleagues (Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer, 1993) conclude that great performance derives primarily from two things: 

  1. regularly obtaining concrete and constructive feedback

  2. deliberate practice. 

In an analysis of diaries of 24 elite figure skaters to determine what might explain some of their performance success, they found that the best skaters spent 68 percent of their practice doing highly difficult jumps and routines compared to those who were less successful and only spent about 48 percent of their time practicing skills with the same level of difficulty. 

Having raw talent is wonderful, but it’s what you do with it that really seems to matter. Consider the quote:  “Only dead fish go with the flow.” In other words, if you don’t work to get better, it just doesn’t happen naturally. Ericsson and his colleagues use the phrase “deliberate practice” to mean focused, structured, serious, and detailed attempts to get better.


How the Best of the Best Get Better 

Graham Jones in his 2008 HBR article “How the Best of the Best Get Better and Better” outlines four unique characteristics of top performers, which can be summarized as: 

  • Top performers compete against themselves and their own standards continuously pushing themselves to new limits—particularly when they are the new benchmark.  Their perspective is longer term with respect to goals and accomplishments. 

  • Top performers can block out distractions very effectively whether it is competitor behavior or personal/family issues (such as death of a family member). 

  • Top performers play with other elite talent to stretch their skills and abilities. 

  • Top performers seek immediate and candid feedback geared to helping them become even better. They want honest and constructive feedback not admiration and gloating praise. 

  • Top performers both celebrate successes and reflect on what got them there. They are strongly interested in their own continuous improvements to sustain their excellence.           

How Long Does It Take for New Habits to Form? 

Research by Phillippa Lally and colleagues from the United Kingdom suggest that new behaviors can become automatic, on average, between 18 to 254 days. This time frame is dependent, however, on the complexity of what new behavior you are trying to put into place and your personality. 

To come up with this statistic, they studied volunteers who chose to change an eating, drinking, or exercise behavior and tracked them for success. Participants were asked to try the new behavior each day for 84 days and detail their efforts in a self-report diary on a website log. For the habits, 27 chose an eating behavior, 31 a drinking behavior (such as drink8 glasses of water per day), 34 an exercise behavior, and four did something else (for example, 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 “natural” to them. 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 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 three 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 (about 90 days) with or without coaching to truly become more natural.  


Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. Th., and Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100, 363-406. 

Jones, G. (2008).  How the best of the best get better and better.  Harvard Business Review, 86, 123-127. 

Lally, P., Van Jaarsveld, C., Potts, H., and Wardle, J. (2009). How are habits formed: Modeling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 1009, 998-1009. 

Norcross, J., Mrykalo, S., and Blagys, M. (2002). Auld Lang Syne: Success predictors, change processes, and self-reported outcomes of New Year’s resolvers and nonresolvers. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58, 397-405.

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