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Changing Habits

From early childhood, human beings are conditioned by our parents, our culture and our environment to do things a certain way. Our worldview is shaped by the things we are told we can and cannot do.  As we reach adulthood, we are free to continue in the things we learned as children or to reevaluate life and make our own choices. All of these influences lead to the creation of the habits that make up who we are. It is precisely because habits are so automatic that we rarely stop to think about the enormous role they play in shaping our behavior, and in fact our lives (Shawn Achor).

We all have habits – some good, some bad. Or are they? Ask the alcoholic acting under the influence of alcohol if drinking alcohol is a “good” habit? Ask the emotional eater in the middle of a binge if this is a “good” habit? Ask the marijuana smoker while he is getting high if smoking marijuana is a “good” habit?  No doubt the answers you receive will seek to justify each behavior.  If it feels good, it must be good.  Right?

At Nature Medicine, we have decided to change our vocabulary with respect to habits. We prefer to think of these patterns of behavior as successful or unsuccessful habits. Ask the alcoholic, marijuana smoker, emotional eater or sugar junkie if they have an unsuccessful habit. They will most likely agree. Maybe you are struggling with your own unsuccessful habit?  Perhaps a specific habit is making you late for work or causing behavior changes that you do not like? Now the motivation for changing your unsuccessful habit becomes greater success: with work, in relationships, etc. We all want success in some form, do we not?

So how does one go about changing unsuccessful habits? First, it is important to remember that it takes 21 days to make a habit. The 21-day habit encourages an individual to focus on establishing one successful habit over the course of 21 days. One has only so much will power to exert, so it is important to conquer one item at a time. We have seen success when using this method to change habits, but we have noticed that other tools may be needed for it to be truly successful.

A study by Gail Matthews from Dominican University revealed some interesting conclusions about the benefits of setting goals. Matthews assigned volunteers from a broad range of ages and backgrounds to five different groups. Each group was asked to determine goals for a four-week time period; some were to just think about them; some were to write their goals down, and others were asked to write progress reports to a friend as they completed their goals. The group that was asked to write down their goals had 50% more success in completing them than those who were only asked to think about their goals. The group that was asked to be accountable to a friend for completing their goals saw the highest level of success by fulfilling 76% of their stated goals. These conclusions suggest that writing out goals and being accountable to keep them is a great way to achieve the things we want to do. Take Alcoholics Anonymous, for example; accountability is a huge part of their success, requiring each participant to have a sponsor. For goal-setting to be effective, summary feedback that reveals progress is a key component to your strategy.

One other helpful tool for creating successful habits is the 20-second rule. The 20-second rule is a psychological construct based upon happiness research popularized by Shawn Achor in his book The Happiness Advantage. The 20-second rule comes from the concept of activation energy. How long does it take the average person to initiate something? Research suggests that people are far more likely to do things if it takes 20 seconds or less to initiate the activity. If the activation time takes greater than 20 seconds, they most likely will not do it. In Achor’s book, a research study was cited in which ice cream consumption in a cafeteria was cut in half by simply closing the lid of the ice cream cooler.

This concept can be a powerful tool in eliminating unsuccessful habits. After reading about this concept, one of Nature Medicine’s practitioners put it to the test on David, a man of the cloth who had a smoking habit. We discovered that David only smoked in his car. He would get in the car to travel somewhere and automatically reach for a cigarette. After explaining the 20-second rule to David, we agreed that he should try keeping his cigarettes in the trunk and remove all lighters from the vehicle. This required David to pull over, retrieve his cigarettes, find a lighter, and get back on the road every time he wanted to smoke.  No one can do that in less than 20 seconds! David has now almost completely removed his unsuccessful habit of smoking from his life.

This tool can be applied to all kinds of unsuccessful habits. If you are an email addict, bury your email folder in 20 other folders to increase the time it takes you to open it. For those who eat when stress levels rise, empty your cupboards of sweets and chips.

The 20-second rule can also be used to create successful habits. Another patient, Matt, was a long-term drinker who needed to make a change. While driving under the influence of alcohol, he was stopped by a NY state trooper just outside his residence and mercifully released without severe consequences. He needed to find help. We determined that he most often drank at a local pub on his way home from work.  Matt also revealed that his drinking was getting in the way of his social time for golf. Taking into account the 20-second rule, we agreed that Matt should program his GPS to take him home from work a different way – right past his favourite golf course. He began keeping his golf clubs in the trunk so that he always had the equipment to golf at any time. These minor changes led to a reduction in Matt’s alcohol consumption by 80%! Not only that, but he was able to replace an unsuccessful habit with a life-giving successful habit.

It is important to remember that human willpower is actually very limited. In The Happiness Advantage, Achor points out that the more we are required to use our willpower, the more worn-out it gets. A willpower study documented in Achor’s book gave an example of this fact. Three groups of college students were asked to refrain from eating three hours before an experiment. When the groups arrived at the lab, they were each given different instructions regarding two plates of food. One plate contained chocolate cookies, the other radishes.  The first group was told they could have as many radishes as they wanted, but no cookies.  The second group was allowed to eat off of either plate. The third group was given no food at all.  After being required to follow these instructions for a certain period of time, each group was given a set of geometric puzzles to solve. Which group gave up on solving the puzzles first? Group One. It appears that this group had used up all of their willpower in resisting the chocolate chip cookies and had little mental energy left over to persevere in solving the puzzles.

This limitation of willpower is what makes habits so powerful. Once an activity has become routine/normal (i.e. a habit), we no longer need mental energy to make it happen; we do it automatically much like riding a bike or driving. This frees us up to focus on the next thing. This is why the 21-day rule and the 20-second concept are such valuable tools in one’s health journey. As we develop healthier habits in place of our unsuccessful ones, we will eventually find ourselves living the lives we want, one habit at a time.

These principles of incremental change and habit development can easily be applied to every area of one’s life.  In his book The Likeability Factor, Tim Sanders talks about four habits of character that will cause you to be more likeable: friendliness, relevance, empathy and realness. Sanders postulates that the more you are liked, the happier your life will be. While that philosophy gives others far too much control over one’s happiness for our liking, we do recognize the importance of intentionally developing character.  If you find yourself lacking in courage, integrity, positivity, kindness, temperance or gratitude, evaluate your habits and begin making small steps in the direction you want to go.

Another area where these principles may be useful is with respect to gaining authority. We all want authority in some way. We want the right to choose how to live our lives, to choose where we live, what we do, who we spend time with.  Authority can be achieved in two ways. We can pursue it or we can have it granted to us. To pursue authority means to take authority because of our title.  This kind of authority comes with accountability and responsibility, both of which are usually unwanted. For example, teenagers want the authority to drive, a common rite of passage in North America. What they soon learn is that, in order to sustain this authority, they must be responsible to the rules of the road and give account to the law keepers should they fail to obey. Unfortunately, much of society pursues authority in this manner. Governments, politicians, lawyers and bureaucrats want authority, but rarely do they want the accountability and responsibility that come with it. Doctors want authority over your body, but they do not want to be held responsible for the consequences of poor decisions. At Nature Medicine, we feel authority should follow the demonstration of willingness for accountability and responsibility. This is another arena in which the development of healthy character habits (e.g. integrity) could be of benefit on numerous levels.

To summarize, incremental changes can bring about significant results when we are working toward a larger goal. So while the obstacles to health transformation may seem at times insurmountable, there is hope when we take it one day at a time. Start small. Get rid of unsuccessful habits. Pursue successful habits. Take responsibility for where you are in life now.  Be accountable to yourself and those around you. Stick to a plan that works.


Changing Habits: The Rule of 21™.

  • Will power is finite
  • Only change 1 habit every 21 days
  • To establish a successful habit it must take less than 21 seconds (20 seconds) to initiate it
  • To break oneself of an unsuccessful habit it must take over 21 seconds (20 seconds) to initiate it
  • Write it down (50% success)
  • Have a friend or your health care provider hold you accountable (76% success)


  3. Achor, Shawn; The Happiness Advantage, 2010. Pgs. 145-170.
  4. Sanders, Tim.  The Likeability Factor.