How to Endure the 66 Days it Takes to Build a New Habit

When we try to make a big, positive change in our lives, it can sometimes feel like our motivation and willpower are trying to work against us. And a lot of the times, they are.

Like we talk about in The ONE Thing, our willpower is never on will call. It comes and goes throughout the day and, every now and then, it just seems to abandon us altogether. When it comes to our success, we can’t rely on our drive to see us through to the finish line. We have to rely on our habits.

Our daily habits make up the bulk of what we do and who we are. If we have a large goal, or something we want to attain that we don’t have already, chances are, the reason is because we don’t have the type of habits that would dictate that type of success.

The problem is, the bigger the change we have to make or the more ingrained our existing habits are, the more effort we have to put in to change it. The more effort, the more motivation and willpower we can expect to spend. It’s a proverbial death spiral.

However, that’s a problem we can overcome.

What Science Says About Making a Change

If you’ve read The ONE Thing, or have frequented this blog, you may be familiar with the idea of a “66-Day Challenge®”. The challenge comes from the idea that, on average, it takes 66 days to build a new habit. For a little over two months, you’ll commit to rewiring your brain to throw out a habit you know isn’t contributing to your success while building a new one that will. And full disclosure: it ain’t easy.

According to many psychologists, the prevailing ideas on what makes an attempt to change our behavior successful involve something called “self-determination theory”. Developed mostly throughout the late 1950’s and 1960’s, academics suggest that the ability to change our behavior relies on three separate pillars: Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness.

Autonomy begins with the idea that we need whatever change we’re invoking in our lives to be something that we want, not something that was forced on us by someone or something else. When our change is for personal reasons, it means that the source of our change is tied to something that is much sturdier, and we’re more likely to commit to making it work through the long-haul.

Competence means that we’re much more likely to continue engaging in activities that we believe we’re good at or have the potential to be good at. If we don’t feel like we have what it takes to make the change happen, or we’re constantly barraged with negative opinions and thoughts telling us we can’t do it (or we’re not good at it), then that’s eventually the reality we’ll believe.

Relatedness says we’re more likely to change if the process and result will make us feel more connected with other people. In the words of acclaimed psychologist Dr. Edward Deci, it is “the need to love and be loved, to care and be cared for.” Autonomy and relatedness don’t contradict one another, either. Whereas autonomy is all about an internal desire to change, relatedness is changing to grow more connected or remain connected with other people.

All three of these pillars work together and influence our motivation to change. By designing your 66-Day Challenge® around them, they can actually help you succeed. Below we have four steps that will help you maintain your motivation and willpower and give you the best chance to succeed as you embark on your journey.

1. Figure out Why You Want to Change

Without a doubt, you won’t succeed in making a change if you don’t want to make a change in the first place.

In Why We Do What We Do, Dr. Edward Deci explains that there are two types of motivators: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is everything from the outside world that compels us to do something. Most commonly, this shows up as some form of income. When you do something because it pays you, that’s an external motivator. The other kind of motivation is intrinsic motivation. The best way to describe this is that natural ambition or inclination we have to do something. When we do something simply for the pleasure of doing it, we’re displaying the power of intrinsic motivation.

While there’s undoubtedly a time and a place for both forms of motivation, intrinsic motivation tends to be the most effective form of the two. This is largely because it’s the one with the most lasting power. When we do things because we feel naturally rewarded for doing them, we’re more likely to do them again and again. The problem with external motivators is that we may inadvertently gravitate toward ‘pay for play’ conditions, where if the rewards stop showing up, we stop doing that activity.

That’s not to say that all external motivators are bad. Some have been shown to be good, like verbal rewards. (More on that later.) It is, however, something to keep in mind when you’re trying to make a change in your life.

What’s really driving the behavior change? Is it something you want to do, or something you’re being incentivized or told to do?

Your answer may determine whether or not you’ll follow-through with your 66-Day Challenge®. If you know that your internal desires are working against you as you tackle your existing habits, then it might be a good idea to reassess the change you want to make. You might be better off taking a different approach and chasing after something you know that you want to achieve.

2. Develop an Action Plan

Academics call the space between intending to change our behavior and actually doing it the “intention behavior gap”. Overcoming the gap and taking our first step can sometimes be the hardest part of building a new habit, so it’s always a good idea to help ourselves where we can.

By far, the most proven way to help ourselves move from thought to action is to create an action plan. An action plan is a simple strategy of identifying when, where, and how an activity is going to be performed. It forces us to move into the next step by shifting our thoughts from “theoretical” to “practical”, and can sometimes mean the difference between taking the plunge or stepping off the diving board.

To get started on your action plan, answer these three questions with your 66-Day Challenge® in mind:

1. What time am I going to engage in this activity?

2. Where is the activity going to take place?

3. How am I going to accomplish this activity daily?

Think of your answers as a beginner’s guide to taking your next steps. From here, we want you to take your action plan a bit further, by making appointments with yourself, …..make an appointment with yourself to actually get it accomplished.

Time Block

If it’s the kind of activity that requires focus or attention, then you’re definitely going to want to time block for it. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, time blocking is a method of reserving our most productive part of the day for our most important tasks. It’s all about saving time through efficiency by taking our motivation, willpower, focus, and energy levels into account.

When you’ve figured out on an activity you need to do to accomplish your 66-Day Challenge®, pull out your calendar and block of some time to complete it. Consider this a date with yourself. One that you can’t break.

Leverage Shikake

Shikake is a Japanese word with multiple meanings, including “a device, mechanism, contrivance, and system”, but has been adopted by academics to describe triggers in our lives that cause us to behave differently.

These triggers, while sometimes humorous, have a profound impact on us individually and as a society. Like how a sudden smell can evoke a powerful memory from our childhood, we use triggers as a way to remind us of what we have to do.

Every time we pass by a road sign that flashes how far we’re going above the speed limit, which causes us to reduce our speed: shikake. While walking across the sidewalk and we see a game of hopscotch chalked out in front of us and we instinctively jump through it: shikake.

When considering your 66-Day Challenge®, it’s a good idea to find different ways you can trigger yourself into getting into your new habit. A good shikake unburdens us from answering the question: How am I going to remember and motivate myself to build this new habit?

Building a shikake begins by identifying an already existing habit that you can use to build your new one off of.

For example, a common habit that many of us need to build but tend to avoid is flossing. Most likely, we already have a habit in place around brushing our teeth. We can use this established habit to trigger the creation of a new one: flossing. The logical thing to do would be to have all of our flossing equipment at the ready so when we brush our teeth, we’re ready to immediately switch tasks, and pick up that floss. When we use tooth brushing as a base to build upon, flossing doesn’t become so much as a new activity, but an addition to our existing routine.

Sweep for Landmines

Slipping back into an old habit doesn’t always happen all at once. It takes time and a series of decisions to get to that point. If we don’t plan for the things that we know will trip us up, then we’re taking the first step to derailing our own success.

Building a habit requires a little bit of reconstruction. We have to see how our life is now, and how the life we want differs from that. Then, all of the steps in between are spent filling in the gaps, turning our vision into reality.

One of the most common landmines to watch out for is something called an “Extinction Burst”.

In a nutshell, an extinction burst is your brain’s way of saying “you don’t know what’s good for you”. It works against you, attempting to derail your progress by giving you the urge or impulse to break whatever habit forming streak you’re on. And it usually comes when your willpower is strained and at its lowest point.

If your habit is around diet or exercise, then this is a particularly nasty landmine to watch out for. Throughout all of time, our ancestors have been worried about one thing: Where am I going to get my next meal? The concept of doing anything but satisfying yourself when given the opportunity makes for a real nasty “extinction burst”.

Knowing that there will come a point when your brain will try to sabotage your new habit makes it easier to plan ahead. Go ahead and purge your pantry, and prepare to hold yourself accountable in more extreme ways.

The good news here is that, once you overcome the extinction burst, your likelihood of experiencing that kind of self-sabotaging impulse again is greatly diminished.

3. Keep Track of Your Progress

What we measure, improves.

Good feedback can inspire confidence and feelings of competence. When we measure our outcomes, and see the type of progress we make, it’s encouraging and makes us want to continue to do more and be better.

Depending on the habit that you’re trying to build, you’ll have different types of metrics that you’ll want to keep track of.

The easiest thing you can do to help you keep track of your progress is to use the 66-Day Challenge® Calendar. Just download this little calendar, and mark each day with an “X” as you complete your daily activity. It may sound simple, but it’s a satisfying way to look at how far you have to go and how far you’ve come.

4. Don’t Go Through Your 66-Day Challenge® Alone

66-Day Challenges shouldn’t be done alone. Like we explained when we talked about self-determination theory, behavioral change occurs in part because it will help us feel more connected with a group or an individual.

Finding the right people to help pull you through matters. Going through the challenge with someone who breaks you down instead of builds you up can have detrimental effects. It can even impact the second pillar of the theory: competence. All in all, it’s a pretty steep dive that should be avoided.

And it’s not enough to just go digital and use reminders as a way to hold you accountable for moving forward. Research has found that app-based reminders are just a short-term solution to a long-term problem.

In an exploratory study on the effectiveness of motivational apps, a team of researchers at Montana State University found that relying on reminders can actually keep our new habit from solidifying. When we rely on reminders, we create a crutch, and if that crutch is ever kicked out from underneath us, we’ll fall over. And guess what, it’ll be tougher to get back up.

Create systems that help you rely more on your own volition—not digital alarms. And a great way to do that is to find an accountability partner.

One of the studies Dr. Deci completed in his research on motivation was the role verbal encouragement or criticism played in a person’s likelihood to succeed. What he and his team of researchers found was that, words of encouragement are actually extrinsic forms of motivation that can enhance our intrinsic motivation.

When people are told they’re doing a good job or given a pat on the back when they make an accomplishment, it makes them feel more competent and connected, further rewarding their new behavior internally as well as externally. On the other hand, negative criticism played the opposite role. Making people feel incompetent, and reducing their intrinsic motivation.

The point of the research is this: if you want to change, it’s a good idea to surround yourself with people who will support you. When we’re surrounded by the right people, our challenges can seem a little more surmountable.

Research backs this up. Think back to a study we’ve mentioned in past blog posts – it’s worth jogging your memory about it again.

In the study, students were asked to stand in front of a hill while wearing a heavy backpack and determine its slope. One group was asked to accomplish this task alone, and another was asked to do it with a friend at their side. Interestingly, those with a friend standing next to them were more likely to view the slope as less steep than those who stood alone. In a complimentary study, participants were asked to think of a positive, neutral, or negative relationship and then judge the slope, again while wearing a heavy backpack. The results were similar, but the researchers also found this time that a person’s judgement of the slope was influenced by the warmth of the relationship the participant envisioned. The better the relationship, the smaller the slope appeared.

When approaching obstacles, it’s important to know who’s standing next to you. 66 days may not seem like a ton of time—but when you’re trying to rewire your brain—it can feel like an eternity. The line between succeeding and failing can be extremely thin without having someone there, at your side, helping you pull through.

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