Thursday, January 29, 2015

The science of change: how long does it take to adapt?



There seems to be a lot of change in the air at the moment – kids going to child care or kindy or big school or high school for the first time; new jobs; new homes; new directions; new goals, etc.

I’ve never been particularly comfortable with change, in fact I’m a resister from way back. One of my high school reports even said so – something about a tendency to complain when scheduled activities change. Yeah, I’m that person. I complain, I resist and then I adapt but usually begrudgingly. And then eventually, the adaptation becomes the new norm and all moves along swimmingly until the next change.

But how long does it take to get used to change?

If you’re googling it, like I just did – you’ll find the story of Maxwell Maltz (who most people call Dr but because he’s a surgeon was probably a Mr but that’s a whole post of its own really). Dr/Mr Maltz was a plastic surgeon in the 50s who noticed that after an operation (face-lifts, nose jobs, amputations, etc) it would take a minimum of 21 days for the patient to get used to their new face, nose, leg. Even the phantom limb phenomena tended to subside around the 21 day mark.

Twenty-one days. What do you think? Is that all it takes to adjust to change?

A study published in 2009 tested the theory about how habits are formed. They looked at 96 people over 12 weeks and got them to do some pretty boring stuff on a daily basis (drinking water, doing sit-ups) and then assess how they felt about it. Had it become an automatic behaviour? On average, it took more than two months for the new behaviour to become a habit, to adapt to the change. By average, of course, this means it took the 96 people anywhere from 18 to 254 days to adjust - but 66 days was the mean.

Other interesting facts: a sub-group from the study took much longer than the others and threw up the possibility of habit resistance (hi!); missing a single day didn’t reduce the chance of forming a habit (so don’t give up even if you stumble); and some habits take longer than others (much easier to get into the habit of drinking a glass of water than doing sit-ups every day).

The point of all that is this: if you’re struggling with change, hang in there.

Be realistic about how long it’s going to take to get to your new normal. Maybe you’ll be an outlier and get there in 18 days; maybe you’re on the other end of the scale and two thirds of the year will have gone past by the time you get it. But the bigger the change, the more complex the habit you’re developing, the longer it will probably take.

One day at a time, and all that.

9 comments :

  1. I'm definitely habit resistance. I seem to only THINK I want to change, the reality appears to be quite different! I like little changes but not big ones!! x

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    1. Big changes are hard! I think I like little changes too - although sometimes I'm forgetful and revert back pretty darn quick. Need more practice at this 'making it a habit' thing.

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  2. 66 days? Well that explains it. Damn that is a long time really isnt it... especially to get used to the bigger changes. I am generally a creature of habit so change can rock me a little xx

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    1. Compared to 254 though, not so bad :)

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  3. love this post! i am like you and would be the complainer about the change in routine / expected happenings. As far as changing myself and adding in new habits I hate everyone touting the 21 day thing - hardly anyone mentions what you have - so many factors come into play - how far off the habit you are at the start (someone who runs and is into fitness might easily add in another health habit but might struggle with a daily creative practice and vice versa)... Habits that we will enjoy might happen faster but those we resist even though we know we need them (hello water - my nemesis as i sit here with yet another dehydration headache).

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    1. Yeah, that water bottle at the top is my latest attempt at staying hydrated. That bad boy holds 1.6 litres, and has an ice insert thing, so no excuses. Haha... except, you know... excuses.

      Change is so, so variable with mindset the biggest, I reckon. As you say change is easier if you like what's about to happen. Thanks for stopping by.

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  4. I needed this. I just returned to work last week and only on a contract basis and already I'm second guessing the decision / change because working and running a home was not as easy as I thought it would be. But maybe I just need to hang in there a little bit more, give it a few more days, weeks ... maybe my perception will change.

    Btw I have the same water bottle but in purple. It's massive isn't it? Its always a conversation piece when I'm out and I have it with me.

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    1. I know, it's hard when the changes are so big. Returning to work is a big change too, not just about doing something different but also being someone different, your identity changes in a way. I hope it gets easier for you!

      I am loving the new water bottle - such a beast! And yes, people do comment on it quite a bit!

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  5. Couple of months .... that sounds about right for somethings doesnt it. new job, car, house etc. 254 sounds like a crazy long time to adjust - i wonder what those people were adjusting to? new city, marriage, death, school ?? interesting. Thank you for contributing to The Sunday Brunch Magazine, we look forward to sharing your work, Eliza & Bel x

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Thanks for taking the time to respond to what you have read here at Lilybett and Boy. I love reading through all your comments.

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