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How Long Does It Take to Form a New (Good) Habit?

by Jason Gardner
how long does it take to form a new habit

A common question asked at the beginning of a transformation is, “How long will this take?” 
Each transformation involves a series of habits that need to be created or modified. Each new habit (and perhaps breaking an old one in the process) requires effort and time.
 
In a study by the European Journal of Social Psychology, researchers found it takes 18 to 254 days to form a new habit. That is a range that varies by 14x. So, instead of looking at the time, let’s look at the factors, practices, and pitfalls in forming new habits.
 

The factors 

Existing bad habits

If a team or organization already has a deeply rooted bad behavior, they must unlearn the bad habits, which adds to the time it takes to learn the new, wanted behavior. As business philosopher Jim Rohn remarked, “If someone is going down the wrong road, he doesn’t need motivation to speed him up. What he needs is education to turn him around.”
 
Breaking bad habits can be the most time-consuming part of the process. Elliot Berkman of the University of Oregon said, “It's much easier to start doing something new than to stop doing something habitual without a replacement behavior.” Early training and coaching help new teams form without creating initial bad habits.
 
Existing bad habits often have environmental cues. You must change these cues or bound them to new actions. If unaddressed, these cues will continually push toward old habits. Coaching helps here, as well. Coaches watch not only for the behaviors that need to change but also the cues reinforcing them.
 

Team

When talking about habits in the workplace, we are often referring to a team of people, not just one person needing to enact a new behavior. This may help or hinder the creation of a new habit, depending on the team dynamics. The team may support and help one another on their journey to new outcomes, or they may be separate and require the effort of repeatable habit creation for each individual.
 

Complexity

Some skills, and therefore habits, are more difficult than others. A team developing a habit of writing automated tests will likely take more training, effort, and practice than a task like updating the time remaining in a progress tracking tool. 
 

Scale

The time to form a new habit will depend on where we set the standard for proficiency. In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours of correct practice to become world-class in a skill. On the other hand, in The First 20 Hours: Mastering the Toughest Part of Learning Anything, Josh Kaufman says you can become proficient (not world-class) in 20 hours of deliberate practice. The level of proficiency we want to attain will affect how long it takes to get there.
 

Company environment

The company’s current culture, bureaucracy, and incentive structure may not encourage, or outright discourage the desired habit. Are team members allowed to make the decisions needed for the change? Do they have the ability to experiment, fail, and learn? Do individual and team goals align with customer and business goals?
 
For example, one company had aggressive self-study training requirements, which heavily affected their performance reviews. In many cases, the requirements were not relevant to the work some employees were doing. Many team members spent a significant amount of time reading unrelated self-help books, instead of swarming and delivering product.
 

The practices

good habits

Know why you’re changing

Simon Sinek said, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” If the team doesn’t see a reason to change, and management doesn’t care about it, nor do customers, no change will happen. Whether your title is developer, scrum master, or director, you need to start with why you’re pursuing this change—why people’s lives will be better for it.
 

Metrics

Peter Drucker said, “If it isn’t measured, you can’t improve it.” Metrics help the team (or division or company) track how they’re doing and enable experimentation with a way to evaluate outcomes. Metrics may include things like code coverage for automation, bugs reported by customers, or even surveys of employee engagement or customer satisfaction.
 
A word of caution, remember Goodhart’s Law. “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” The target must be continually set on your core why mentioned above. The metrics help you know if you’re getting there.
 

Purposeful practice

Gladwell’s based his 10,000-hour assertion on a 1993 study with violinists. A 2019 study tried to replicate those studies. The 2019 study separated violinists into three groups, less accomplished, good, and best. The less accomplished group did indeed practice less than the good and best group, but the best group actually practiced less than the good group.
 
There are varying levels of quality in practice. Doing lots of just good practice will not get you best results, and high-quality practice can get you results in less time.
 
Deliberate practice requires breaking complex behaviors and systems into minuscule pieces. If you were to listen to a professional violinist practicing, you might be surprised that much of what you are hearing isn’t, shall we say, performance-ready.  
 
French violinist Esther Abrami posted a video of her preparing Vivaldi’s Summer from The Four Seasons. You can hear her repeating short-scale passages slowly, playing double-stops (two strings at once) to check her intonation. She played the same four notes over and over to get the string crossing exactly right and isolate individual shifts. She also mentioned that one reason she made the video is to analyze her own practice to become more efficient at it.
 
Similarly, the team needs to identify small actions that facilitate practicing the desired habit. One team that wanted to improve their swarming decided to do standup meetings three times a day, focusing on how they could help each other in the next two or three hours. When they felt that level of collaboration was automatic and natural (in other words, a habit), they returned to one daily scrum.
 

Understand control vs. influence

Some habits will run into environmental barriers at the division or company level. There may be things a team can’t control or change. However, obstacles don’t just fall into a binary control or can’t control. There is a whole gray area of influence. 
 
Do you know who has control over that issue? Can you show them some of the metrics you have? Or can you create a prototype? Teams can sometimes find new creative solutions by thinking about influence instead of control.
 

Start small and celebrate the wins

Too often, habits don’t become habits because the action requires so much energy people don’t get over the hump of starting. In creating a new habit, you don’t need to be perfect; you just need to be doing a little better than before. In Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything, BJ Fogg, Ph.D., then suggests celebrating those wins, no matter how small. The celebration can be as simple as a high-five over webcam.
 

Set up the environment to help

BJ Fogg also talks about hooking habits to other processes, so your environment reminds you to do the habit. Using flossing as an example, only about 30% of people floss. More than double that brush their teeth twice a day. Fogg recommends having brushing teeth be the cue or trigger to floss.
 
Applying this to the team, imagine a team trying to do better at writing automated tests. They could include in their peer review checklist to verify the adequacy of tests written, run, and passed. If not, the task doesn’t pass peer review until the test is written, run, and passed. Or, they could write a hook to have the source control disallow a check-in if code coverage drops because of it. There are often multiple options; find the one that fits your team the best.
 

The pitfalls

good habits future

Valuing the new behavior without action

You can’t say you’re going to move to a new behavior if you still own a summer cottage in the old one. Some examples of this are:
• Faux agile: We’re doing our old, dysfunctional habits, but we’ve given them new names that sound better. Nothing about our behavior changed, but we’ll blame “agile” for our frustration now.
• Double-work agile: Let’s do our daily scrum, as well as our old status meetings. Double the work is not more efficient.
• Justifying old behaviors: “Well, here at XYZ Inc, we…” or “The XYZ Inc way is to…”
 

Not investing in the future

New behaviors and capabilities often require time and resources. Failing to invest in those represents a severely short-term view and stunts innovation and efficiency. Some examples of actions that are investments instead of costs are:
• Automated testing
• Adequate employee training
• Architecture changes to allow decoupling of services
• Fixing technical debt
• Organizing teams for cross-functionality
 

Not having professional transition support

A football coach can’t pick up the ball and run for the team. They do, however, mentor, guide, and hold accountable. Likewise, professional agile coaching will help to mentor, guide, and keep your organization accountable as they transition to new behaviors.
 

Embrace Good Habits and Invest in the Process

 Undoing bad habits is expensive. Starting out with good habits is a profitable investment rather than a cost center. The experience will help lower the time to create the habits you want.
 
If you want to start right or get on the right path to transformation, we can help. Contact us today to learn more. 
 
 

Event Start Date: 
Wednesday, Sep 2, 2020

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