30 days to form a new habit? On the moon, maybe

Editor’s note: This post is both a status post and a description of my thoughts on habit forming in 30 days. If you enjoy reading this article, consider subscribing to my RSS feed. Thanks.

I have reached the conclusion of the first month of my holistic weight loss experiment, and things are looking quite good. I’m encouraged.

But first, I’d like to talk about something that, having reached the end of the first month, really bugs me.

Whether this is common to most people I couldn’t say, but for me, I have these little sugar-coated pixies running rampant through the wide-open echo chamber that is my mind, bouncing off of the insides of the polished synaptic tubes that connect my right and left brain, all while giggling and whispering incessantly amongst themselves in tones that collectively sound like the dull hum of an old plugged in refrigerator being rolled down a gravel driveway.

Skipping to and fro, these pixies often stop at the little microphone horns that lead to my ears and whisper to me things like, “Hey that’s great! You lost weight – incredible! That was soooo hard. You really deserve to treat yourself. Go ahead. After all, your new habits are now a way of life, so a little indulgence isn’t going to hurt, don’t you think? After all, you’ve made it past the magic 30 day mark! Since 30 days have passed, these new habits are all solidified and permanent, right? I mean, even Science agrees on that, right?”

30 Days and you’re weight problems are gone!

To cut to the chase, I always find it uh, how do I say this gently, naive, when people (who 9 times out of 10 are card-carrying members of the “already fit” crowd) say things like, “Ya know, they say it takes X [21, 24, 30, etc.] days to form a new habit.” I’m pretty sure that I’ve never heard anyone say longer than 30 days for this magic metric, but I won’t rule out the possibility. Is this true? Does it really take 30 days? And who make up the they in that statement, anyway?

In the words of my dad, I think that’s a bunch of malarkey.

In fairness, I looked up the word malarkey, and according to Merriam-Webster it can imply either insincerity, or simple foolishness. I don’t believe the first component is necessarily applicable here; I think people without this problem who offer to solve it in a sentence or two are sincere, but they are just a little on the foolhardy side sometimes. When they dole out their magic idealistic prescriptions for success, these days I tend to mentally run for the hills, hiding in the shadow of a giant vat of melted chocolate clutching a dented tin cup that waits to be dipped into the bubbling cauldron of goodness.

While I understand that the intention is good, and agree that forming some habits like oh, I don’t know, smoking, may take that long for it to really stick to your ribs, for me 30 days has NEVER been long enough to form new habits that become those self-perpetuating, without-a-second-thought practices that have a bat’s chance of surviving in the face of the next box of jelly donuts. The raspberry ones. With the powdered sugar.

What was I saying? Oh right. 30 days.

I’ll give you an example: Years ago I lost nearly 70 lbs thanks to the help of Diet Center, sticking to a 1200 calorie diet (if I recall correctly) and refusing exercise, as I felt at the time that doing such activities could potentially slow the scale’s needle by adding horrendously heavy muscle mass (who needs that, right?). The Diet Center weight loss plan at the time was like weight loss crack for me. The sicklier-looking I got, the more motivated I was to atrophy and starve the weight right off of my bones. My dying vital organs and diminishing cardiovascular strength? A mere inconvenience. As long as I got my daily mainline high from the scale, I was all good.

After the initial weight plummet/caloric starvation phase ended, I was able to stretch out the “gain back” phase (the phase they referred to as “maintenance”, but I think is more accurately termed “ballooning up like a bad mortgage”) for 5 whole years. Fortunately for me, those 5 years included my final 3 years in high school plus a couple of years of traveling. So it was a good time in life to be on the thin side, though hardly, “fit” really; just less weighed down.

During the 6 months of their program including the leveling-off cool down period (where a slice of highly processed low-calorie Wonderbread is your dietary methadone), I was positively religious about practices like daily dietary supplements and 8-12 glasses of water a day.

So lets see. . .Something as simple as taking a couple of diet supplements like magnesium in the morning for 180 days, getting the results I wanted, and building it into my daily routine…hmm…sounds like a recipe for success to me, at least if you listen to the “them” in the 30-day habit statement.

So did it work? Did the habit form a new binary process in my brain, where upon boot up of my neural network each morning I compiled and executed the day’s assembly code bits that say, “Must Take Magnesium and other stuff NOW!”?

Hardly. I hate supplements. And I don’t take them. 180 days, and no habit. As soon as I was off the plan, man, I was OFF the plan.

So what did I learn from this?

  • 30 days is not enough time to determine if a dietary or exercise habit can be lifelong. Give it more time without question, but time alone is not enough to make it stick.
  • The simple repetition of an activity over the passage of time does not guarantee a permanent change.
  • If I am not enjoying what I’m doing when I’m forced to do that thing, its almost guaranteed that I will stop doing that thing when the pressure’s off.

And maybe most importantly, this one:

  • Don’t be too hard on myself if the habit-forming process doesn’t stick after that 30 day mark. or the 60 day mark. Or any mark. The changes I’m striving to make have more to do with the overall span of my life, not just this month.

Of course, this is by no means scientific evidence. In fact, if you look up information on building good habits you’ll see that folks all over have suggestions on how to do so, and many of those articles start with, “Scientists Agree…” or, “recent studies have shown…” – Well researchers may have tested their theories on it, but I wasn’t one of their A/B subjects. And I don’t agree, at least not for me.

The Results for month 1 – January 2008

At this phase, I am not physically tracking my body fat percentage, as I am skeptical that the old caliper method is actually accurate (I can take 3 pinch readings and get 3 totally different answers). So for now, its the scale.

January 1-31, 2008: -9 lbs, 0 ounces for the month.

The minor things I’ve changed:

  • Trying to eat more fruit during the day, including a fruit and protein daytime regime once a week (more on that in another article)
  • Avoiding beer for the most part (although I have indulged in it several times this month, with pizza and in the company of friends). To the point – I am avoiding “regular” partaking, as in nightly or semi-nightly.
  • Smaller portions, with the promise to myself that after 20 minutes, if I’m still hungry, I can easily go back for seconds
  • Eating slower, with smaller bites

And I’m still eating ice cream before bed, I’m still eating a well-rounded full-fat dinners with bread, drinking wine with dinner, and having the occasional indulgence if life dictates that I must have Pizza. Because when life says, “look kid, everyone else is gonna’ have pizza – don’t be a yutz by ordering the house salad instead. have some pizza and get over it,” — well, as for me I’m going to heed that call.

And so far, its working.