Common wisdom says that it takes 30 days to create a new habit.
Self-help books and websites consistently state that this is the time frame humans need for a new behavior to take hold but they never cite a source. Not surprisingly, I couldn’t find any research to support the 30-day-to-habit hypothesis (ok, I didn’t look too hard, but I did look).
Recent research by folks at the College of London, in fact, found that the average time to for a new behavior to feel automatic was 66 days. In addition, there was significant variation in how long it took for a habit to take hold, from 18 days up to 254 days.
Before you get any grand ideas, let me make it clear right now that I’m talking about eating five servings of fruit and vegetables a day – my January resolution. I have no plans of becoming a teetotaler, I promise.
So how did I do in January? And what side of this curve am I on?
As it turns out, I ate at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day in January and I did not find it difficult to do. It was almost as if I turned a switch and it just happened. Now that it’s February though, am I still doing it?
Mostly, YES. It’s February 10th and I’ve eaten at least five servings of fruits and vegetables for eight out of nine days. My one day ‘off’ was yesterday, and I still ate four servings of fruits and vegetables. (I also had a hot dog and a pretzel at market and some pizza for dinner. Hey, I’m not perfect!)
I would not say my fruit and veggie behavior is yet automatic. I’m still relying on some of the tools I implemented in January to make it happen. If I were to rate how automatic my chosen behavior feels right now on a scale of 1 to ten (where 1 is not at all, and ten is I do it without thinking), I would say I’m at about 6 or 7. This is definite progress, and I plan to continue this resolution indefinitely – it just doesn’t seem like a behavior worth giving up.
For the curious…
How did I create this new habit?
- Early in the month I did research into what constitutes a ‘serving’ and identified the fruits and vegetables I was most likely to enjoy at this time of year. Knowing that a variety of colors is also important, I also identified a few dark greens to add to my otherwise colorful vegetable diet (kale, spinach, and broccoli, in particular). There are tons of resources on the web about incorporating more fruits and vegetables into your diet. In particular, I liked the tools on the Cooking Light site, part of their 12-month Health Habits program.
- Since I am a recovering J, I couldn’t help myself from using the Cooking Light chart to track my daily fruit and vegetable intake. The visual reminder on my refrigerator helped me to make good choices every time I made a meal or went for a snack.
- I told everyone I knew about my goal – especially the people I share meals with on a regular basis. It wasn’t that I expected them to correct my behavior or scold me for making bad choices. But the pressure of knowing that I had made my goal public helped me to make better choices when out with friends, my most vulnerable situation when it comes to eating healthy.
- I did not try to start any other food (or drink) related habits or implement any other restrictions on myself during January. As it turned out, eating five servings of fruits and vegetables (or more) is eating a lot of food. I did eat other things, and some of them were colossally unhealthy, but the portions were always very small because I ate the healthy stuff first and I got full. Who knew?
- Again, I didn’t try to change too much. I stuck with fruits and vegetables I like and those that are either (a) in season locally or (b) easy to get in high quality form (i.e. no January tomatoes for me). I am lucky that I actually LIKE fruits and vegetables.
- I did not give myself a hard time about buying produce that had been trucked from Florida or California. While I try VERY HARD to eat locally/regionally, part of my problem was that the fruits and vegetables available in PA are so limited this time of year. I have no trouble eating five servings in July and August. I had to allow one part of my conscience (the part that wants me to avoid diabetes and heart disease, etc.) to win the argument with the other part of my conscience (the fossil fuels, Shelby! the earth is crying Shelby!) or I would be frozen in the grocery store debating with myself every time I tried to by an orange.