It goes without saying that consistent training is the only way for you to advance up through the ranks of the martial arts system you have invested your hard earned money and precious time into studying. This is the first post in a two-part blog article series where I want to share both science and practical tools for establishing good training habits. In this post I will cover some important background information about the behavioral science around habit formation and maintenance. The second post (look for it next month) in this series is where I will share with you my own personal journey in applying these scientific principles (and a free mobile app) to keep myself on track.
You may have heard that it takes 21 days to establish a new habit. There are other versions of this (sometimes stated as 30 days or 1 month). Apparently, this “myth” arose out of some very specific research conducted in the 1960s (which was not actually about habits, by the way) and got picked up by the self-help author and speaker crowd. Once a best selling book or popular author says something, unfortunately that is often taken as “gospel truth” and not questioned.
A recent study tested this myth empirically (they did a real, rigorous study). These researchers wanted to know how long it really takes to form a habit. They studied the habits of 96 people over a 12-week period (each person chose one new habit for the 12 weeks and reported each day on whether or not they did the behavior and how automatic the behavior felt). Some chose simple habits like drinking a bottle of water with lunch, others chose more complex behaviors like running for 15 minutes before dinner. At the end of the 12 weeks, the researchers analyzed the data to determine how long it took each person to go from starting a new behavior to automatically doing it.
So what did they find? It took more than 2 months before a new behavior become automatic: on average, it took 66 days to be exact. The researchers also determined that the length of time it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances. In this study, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit.
What can you take away from this? The truth is that it will probably take you anywhere from 2 – 8 months to establish a new habit, not 21 days. It will vary from person to person. Don’t be concerned if it takes you longer. Just know that it may take longer to “lock in” than what is often stated in popular culture circles. Be patient, use proven tactics and you WILL succeed!
This cycle is a simple illustration of the main components required to establish a habit, and is sometimes referred to as the Habit Loop.
A cue is the trigger that tells your brain to go into cruise control (automatic mode) and ushers a specific routine. The cue can be a person, place, thing, or even emotion. For martial arts training, a common cue is class time. For those who do not train at “brick and mortar” schools, however, will have different cues – perhaps an alarm integrated into your daily calendar.
The routine is the second part of this three-part loop. The routine is an action that can be mental, emotional, or physical. This is what really makes a habit, a habit. This is what you DO – in your case, the training routine.
The reward is what makes doing the routine worthwhile, at least, from a neurological perspective. A reward may not seem like a reward on its surface, especially if your habits cause you financial, physical, or emotional pain. Runners who get “runner’s high” actually get a shot of endorphins after a run—that’s the reward.
A really straightforward explanation of this cycle (with applications) can be found here.
James O. Prochaska and Carlo C. DiClemente (University of Rhode Island) first wrote about the Transtheoretical Model (TTM) in the 1980s. This behavioral model was developed to guide clinical behavioral intervention of addictive behaviors. Smoking cessation was the first behavior of interest and intervention strategy that built the conceptual and practice empirical foundation of this integrated model of human behavior. Over the years, the model has been successfully applied to other risk behaviors (e.g., sun exposure) and lifestyle behaviors (e.g., diet, physical activity). Most recently, TTM has been used to guide web-, texting-, or mobile app based behavioral interventions.
One aspect of TTM that is useful in our discussion of forming and continuing a habit such as consistent training, is the concept of stages of change (SOC). According to SOC, an individual is presently “at” a specific level of “readiness to change” (with respect to a particular behavior). Now, since SOC is behavior specific, I could have a high level of readiness to change my exercise habits but have a low level of readiness to change my eating habits.
Those who are not even thinking about changing are in the first stage (called pre-contemplation). Stages 2 and 3 are those people who are thinking about making a change (called contemplation) OR have taken some real step toward making a change (called preparation). Stage 4 is the stage where the “rubber meets the road”… that is, this is when a person actually engages in behavior change (called action). Lastly, Stage 5 is where people continue with the new behavior (called maintenance).
In the behavioral sciences world, so-called “stage theories”, like the stages of change, assume that behavior change involves movement through a sequence of discrete stages, that different variables influence different stage transitions, and that effective interventions need to be matched to stage.
TRANSLATION: when therapists (or researchers) are trying to get individuals to change their behavior they need to know (1) “where” each individual patients (or subjects) “are” (in terms of wanting to change), so they can (2) customize appropriate (stage-relevant) strategies to facilitate behavior change.
We can use this science base to guide our own personal efforts at changing behavior (or establishing and maintaining a new habit). Notice in the image above that for each stage of change there is a corresponding list of important things to do (more technically, we can call them strategies) that “fit”, or are appropriate, given your readiness to change. See, that wasn’t hard! In the following sections I’ll expand these important foundational concepts and talk about some concrete, real-life strategies you can use to lock in your habit of consistent martial arts training.
Goal-setting is a widely used strategy in health promotion intervention and goal setting is particularly relevant to physical activity, as: goals are often prescribed to or set by individuals; real time feedback by today’s popular activity trackers is based on goal-setting principles; and individuals often adopt national/worldwide physical activity guidelines as activity level goals or targets. Behavioral science tells us that when people aim for and master a task that has some personal value, they experience a sense of satisfaction (and confidence). Further, satisfaction derived from reaching goals builds internal motivation. In other words, your goals have to be “high enough” for you to honestly feel that you have accomplished something and “low enough” that you can actually reach them. There is a real balance at play here. Once you find that sweet spot, reaching a goal will only motivate you to do more!
For the GMAU student, goal setting can be applied not only to consistent training (e.g., times per week, total hours per week) but also to having the required fitness level to complete assignments and tests, which must be filmed continuously. I, for one, have found myself “sucking wind” during Krav Maga assignments and testing! A 2016 meta-analysis of 52 studies showed that across multiple studies, goal-setting is an effective strategy with a significant impact (measured as effect size) on actual physical activity behavior. When creating your own physical activity goals be realistic, and set goals that are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound!
Problem solving or troubleshooting comes into play when you fail to reach a goal. It is important to not let this get you down. Especially early on, you may need to simply “zero in” on a realistic/achievable goal given your current level of training, life time constraints, etc. The simplest application of problem solving/troubleshooting is to re-visit your goal and ask some simple questions:
In the maintenance stage you want to figure out how to “stay on track” with consistent training, making adjustments (as described above) as needed. Here are a two tips that are important in this stage:
One of the best examples of how to set up a personal action plan comes from the Stanford Chronic Disease Self-Management Program. I am a health behavior scientist and I became a Master Trainer in this program and integrated the CDSMP concepts and principles into some of the grant-funded disease self-management interventions that my colleagues and I have implemented and evaluated. In the CDSMP, patients choose one behavior (or habit) that they want to change each week. We walk them through a process to help them set their personal goal, then we “test” how confident they are in achieving the goal. The following week we check in with how they did, apply problem solving/troubleshooting strategies (if needed), celebrate goal achievement, and set a new self-management goal for the following week. Here is a quick overview of how we teach individuals to develop their Action Plan that you can apply to setting your personal training goal(s):
Catch up with me in August when I publish a blog post on my experience with the HabitMinder app. I will download this app and use it over the next 30 days to help me stay on track with my training. In my post I’ll include some videos of me using the app and track progress toward my training goals. Until then, take care and train hard!