Recently, in a focus group, a respondent remarked that “you have to do something 21 days before it becomes a habit.” Her comment was related to a discussion surrounding energy efficiency behaviors, such as unplugging electronics or turning off lights. The specificity of her “21 days” really struck me, so I did a little research.
Not surprisingly, there is not uniform agreement on how long it takes to change a person’s behavior in order to create a new habit. Some argue that it takes 30 days, and other scholarly writings say it can take up to 66 days. The length also depends on the amount of time and effort it takes to perform the task.
At its core, creating a habit boils down to two things: repetition and time (which is also how advertising recall works). But as Americans, we have come to demand immediate satisfaction (on-demand movies, 24 hour news programs, etc.). So it would seem the time needed to create a habit is at odds with our need for immediate gratification or success. Maybe we expect that habits can be formed more quickly than realistically possible, and therefore are more easily discouraged when we are not successful.
Accordingly, when we ask people to take on sustainable habits, we need to start the commitment request at a low level to help ensure success. Focus on a singular, simple task (turn off the water while brushing your teeth, for instance) and help that person remember to repeat it. Smart phone apps are great for this — or, for that matter, simply using the the calendar feature on a smart phone to provide a reminder would work just fine. For me, mnemonic devices such as ‘one bun, two shoe’ work well for less routine tasks. (If you are not familiar with ‘one bun, two shoe’, look it up on the Internet. It works well for shopping lists.)
Once your intended audience has successfully incorporated one habit into everyday life, the next step is to encourage them to build on that success by incorporating one more habit. Behavioral science research bears this “encouragement approach” out, and our own research specifically indicates that people who have adopted/purchased a specific number of energy efficient behaviors/products will see a noticeable effect on their utility bill. Thus, the proven success is the reinforcement to encourage habit development.
In short: let the journey begin with a single step. Repeated 21 times.