Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Make or Break a Habit - How Much Practice Does It Take to Make Perfect?

When I tell people that establishing a new habit, skill or behavior pattern takes time, I'm often asked, "How long?"

It's a fair question. People want to know what they're committing to. How hard will it be? How much frustration will they have to endure? Will it happen quickly? Will it take most of the rest of their lives?

And it's an important question. Because in a typical busy day people mostly react; they don't ponder every little action. So they won’t use a new skill consistently until it feels like second nature - a habitual response.

This takes time, because an action doesn't become habitual until the brain cells involved in the action grow dendrites and interconnect with each other into a new neural pathway. And this pathway won’t connect without a lot of repetition (practice), which stimulates the growth.

This is true whether you're trying to quit smoking, reduce your portion size, or change the way you hit a backhand shot in tennis.

The total time needed varies, depending on how simple the activity is and how much you're able to repeat the action.

Recently I got rid of a bad habit. I was starting my car and driving off without first buckling my seat belt. When the reminder chimes went off in my car, I would buckle up while driving - admittedly a dangerous practice.

After doing it this way for years, I finally decided to change the pattern. The first week there were more misses than hits, but each week after that my percentage of correct "buckles" increased. Six weeks later, I do it correctly 98% of the time.

I'm cured!

But that was a simple skill, and not entangled with a lot of emotional baggage.

Years ago, I tried to change the way I listened to people. A much more complex skill, I was able to practice it only a few times a week. It took me the better part of a year to establish the new behavior pattern I was aiming for.

In golf, hitting a tee shot with your driver - complex. Every golf pro will verify this.

At home, properly turning off the propane tank when you're done with the gas grill - simple.

And don't forget the repetitions. The more you do it, the faster the brain cells will connect.

The bottom line - be patient. Don't get discouraged when you "forget" a lot in the early stages. Keep track of your progress. Expect the process to fully ingrain the new pattern to take a while.

Be realistic, stay hopeful, and stick with it!

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength . (Permission to use photos purchased from


Sarcastic Bastard said...

Thanks, Denny. This was an informative and helpful post. I am struggling with trying to reduce portion size and to start exercising on most days. I think this post will remind me not to feel so easily defeated.

The Word Verification is: demon. That seemed appropriate. Laugh.

Love to you and Kathleen,


Kathy said...

I love this Denny - it's a good reminder to be mindful of our actions throughout the day, not just going through the motions. I love your posts, they keep me on point! Kathy

Kumar Gauraw said...

This is wonderful post for a Sunday morning. Thank you for sharing Danny. Enjoyed reading about your Car Seatbelt story. Yes, we need to be realistic and optimistic.
Thanks again,

Dr. Timmy. twitter @tiemedoks said...

Thanks a lot, I'm learning to pay attention to informative posts like this and I'm glad I'm not regreting doing so. Quite informative I'm currently struggling with paying more attention to people and coping with the ever demanding work load. Today I'v found out to keep trying and soon enough I'll be perfect. God bless