One of the most humbling things a cerebral, high-performing person can do is learn physical movement. Nerds are usually known for quick wit, not a quick jab. We also often suffer from untested arrogance, which is the attitude I had when I walked into a registered boxing gym. I was in my late 30s and very far from any sort of fighting shape. I also thought that I could some day be able to fight in a smoker, an exhibition boxing match. I never did get that chance, but I did develop a four-to-five times a week training habit for four years. I also realized that my building of a consistent gym habit could be explained by the widely cited research on habit formation by Dr. Wendy Wood and Dr. Phillipa Lally. Success lies in finding the right reward and having accurate expectations around timelines.
One of my coaches, Coach Charles, deserves an award for not laughing me out of the gym. Coach Charles was a champion middle weight boxer in the 1980s and at one point, ran physical training for the Houston Police Department. He also had unparalleled patience and love for his students and taught us strong fundamentals of training. One motto often repeated in the gym goes “technique, speed, then power.” There is no cheat code here. First, a student has to get perfect on their technique, including stance, footwork, and striking. Once the technique is perfected, then you can add speed. When those two aspects are fully executing, power will show up as a natural result. But there isn’t any way to jump from intention to being an immediately powerful fighter. You have to work diligently through those three steps.
This approach helped me better understand why high performers often fail at adopting new habits. We want to perform and we are used to learning very quickly. But learning how to box is not the same as developing clever pivot tables in Excel. When we learn a brand new skill or habit, particularly one that is challenging, there are two phases – learning and performance. Coach Charles taught me that we have to train differently for each phase. During the learning phase, all attempts are important and focus needs to be on correct repetition of the action. He would never say “no” or even let me get mad at myself when I would mess up a maneuver. His magic phrase was always “Reset. Again.” He would tell me to drop swearing when I got a move wrong, because my brain would remember the judgement, not the correct way to move. Harsh judgement was useless and could set my learning back.
That learning mindset is key. In fact, adopting a habit is a way to learn, as Dr. Wendy Woods explains in this interview. When we are in the learning phase, we are trying to develop how to automatically respond without consciously making a decision. “A habit is a sort of a mental shortcut to repeat what we did in the past that worked for us and got us some reward,” said Dr. Woods explains in that interview.
My boxing training became a very solid habit for at least two reasons that mirror Dr. Wood’s findings. The first is I was motivated to respond to Coach Charles with diligent effort because I wanted to prove to him and to myself that I could fight. His praise was the reward, and he did not praise often. The second reason was I was learning what it meant to do intense physical training as someone who was sliding into middle age. Boxing involves extreme cardiovascular conditioning, and skipping training even once a week would make the next class harder. Consistency actually eased training and so became it’s own reward.
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How does this translate into more universal and tactical help in adopting habits? The first thing to consider is reasonable timelines. Stop thinking about December 2022. For at least the next month or quarter, you will likely be in a learning phase with your new intended habit. Every attempt at executing the new habit matters, including failed attempts. Keep goals reasonable and easy to attain. If you try to skip the learning phase and try to go directly to the performance phase, you set yourself up for disappointment and collapse of motivation. Skipping to the performance phase might look like getting discouraged because your weight is not dropping fast enough, or focusing on your lack of attempts over deciding to restart your intention.
Focusing on shorter timelines also helps maintain more realistic expectations about your ability to learn a new habit. A widely cited 2010 study by Dr. Phillipa Lally found that adopting a new habit can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days. The average time was about 66 days or nearly 10 weeks. If we’re attempting a new workplace habit, 66 days could be closer to a full quarter, assuming the habit is attempted during a standard 5-day work week.
Let’s make this 66-day period a little more granular. The first interval to consider is two weeks. For many activities, after two weeks of attempts, you’ll have enough data to know whether or not the new habit experiment is feasible, useful or not executed at all. It will not be a solid habit yet. But if you can get to two weeks of consistent attempts, see if you can keep consistent for another two weeks. By getting to four weeks, you are nearly half way to the 10-week mark.
The key here is to find time intervals help you focus on consistency, not performance. For example, if this was a fitness habit, focus on your consistency to showing up at the treadmill over number of miles you jogged. Or how often you unrolled your yoga mat, versus how many sun salutations you completed. As both Dr. Wood and Dr. Lally found, paying attention to context and cues is important as well. Deciding that you will do a simple action at a time of day and in a certain location is important, too.
The path to success lies in focusing on what’s working until your consistency becomes solid. Each attempt at the habit are valid and important, no matter how humble. Be curious about why you complete or avoid the task. Experiment with small adjustments to reduce friction around executing the new habit. Think about the context (location or place) and cue (often a visual indicator, maybe a time of day) that will help get you to the 10-week mark. Every attempt is a positive step forward, even if you stumble at the beginning. Focus on the reset and try again.