It is officially autumn. I know the formal seasonal breakdown suggests that August, September and October are officially the Autumnal months but in my little world the September start suits better. The blackberries are out and so are white linen trousers, mid September calls for something slightly warmer. I love the incoming season, whatever it may be. Rather than seeing January 1st as a time for change or modification, the seasonal cusps seem a much more appropriate point in time. Where the start of autumn is concerned it has much to do with the new school term starting in September. As a child those late days of August, punctuated with the smell of new schoolbooks and fresh cotton school shirts always heralded the cooler days to come. It was around this time, the weekend before school started again, that my Mother would always announce, “This year we are having new rules. Everyone will be in bed early”. The ‘new rules’ never lasted and it wasn’t long before the usual cries of “are you not gone to bed yet” and “for God’s sake get into bed” were heard once more. To be fair to my Mother she was probably thwarted by the fact that the evenings still held a certain amount of daylight rather than a poor resolve or lack of discipline on her part. It is unnatural to go to bed when you feel there is still at least an hour of play left in the garden.

On reflection the other reason that the new rules didn’t stick was the fact that we all gave in much too early. It is now accepted that a new habit takes 21 consecutive days of repeating the action before it sticks. We gave up long before the 21st of September. The 21 day theory was discovered and promoted in the 1960s by a plastic surgeon named Dr. Maxwell Maltz. He noticed that it took 21 days for amputees to cease feeling phantom sensations in the amputated limb. This led to further work on his part and after years of observation he found it also took 3 weeks or 21 days to create a new habit. A habit is any action, conduct or behaviour that you do over and over again. It may of course be a bad habit as easily as it is a good habit, but either way the 21 day rule applies. I read a quote once that said “Men do not really decide their future. They merely decide their habits. Then their habits decide their future. I suppose it’s not what we do occasionally in this life that creates success or failure; it is what we do on a daily basis.

Discipline and habit

People also mix up discipline and habit. If you do want to form a new habit it may initially take discipline. Discipline is when you have to force yourself to do something. It may be uncomfortable or unpleasant and even miserable in the beginning. Smokers will almost unanimously admit that the first cigarette almost choked them. They had to work hard at becoming a smoker, which in a very short time became an addiction. People starting an exercise regime will say how difficult it is with the hardship, the sweat, the physical punishment. Eventually, if they don’t give up, they look forward to exercise and see it as a natural part of their life. We can therefore say that habit is the offspring of discipline. After a given time it becomes something you just do naturally.

The difference between habit and addiction is a much thinner, greyer line. Sometimes I think we prefer the word addiction to habit as it almost excuses us from responsibility and yet the words are not interchangeable. If smoking was just a habit then there is no excuse not to stop, it is just mind over matter. However if you believe that it is an addiction, then it’s out of your control. There is scientific evidence that nicotine is addictive, however it has also been proven that it leaves the body rapidly and therefore only becomes a problem if you create a habit out of smoking. Recently the X Files actor, David Duchovny, has revealed publicly that he is a sex addict. Of all the addictions this is probably the one that I least understand. It probably has to do with the fact that I have a natural lazy streak and the thought of getting dressed and undressed several times a day is far to energetic for someone like me. It is also a covert addiction, not something you can do that openly. At least alcoholics can go to a pub. I kind of think that those addicted to sex sit alongside the chocolate and ice cream sufferers, although admittedly it is much more socially acceptable to be addicted to the latter two. Isn’t sex addiction just a very inconvenient habit at best? I empathise with alcoholics and drug users but find myself scoffing slightly at the sex addicts. (I hasten to draw a distinction between sex addicts and sex abusers; they are two very different animals.) What do you have to do for 21 days or more to create a sex habit that will manifest into an addiction? Surely if you have a so called sex addiction you could just try a little substitution for 21 days; create a different outlet. Your new pursuit might not be as exciting or stimulating but at least you can happily discuss your fascination with, let’s say, knitting or even chocolate in polite company.


Anxiety and stress

The problem with forming habits, even if they are supposedly good ones, is that living habitually can create anxiety and stress if you are prevented from performing those habits. For example some people have a habit or routine in the morning. If the routine is broken, interrupted or something has to be done out of the usual sequence it can ruin their morning. They are thrown and suddenly feel that this will impact negatively the whole day. There has to be room for flexibility and spontaneity. Indeed if your ‘good’ habits can create such feelings when not performed you have probably strayed into compulsion, that insidious cousin of addiction. The other thing with forming habits is that you shouldn’t try and create too many new habits at the one time. Try giving up smoking, going on a diet and taking up an exercise regime in the same week and see how you get on. It’s almost doomed to failure and you risk ending up with a psychotic disorder well before the 21 days have elapsed. I speak from experience in this matter.

For the 21 day rule to work, the essence of the technique is simply to devote 15 minutes a day to the formation of any habit you wish to establish, and do this faithfully for 21 days. By the fourth week, it should actually be harder not to engage in the new behavior than it would be to continue doing it. If you break somewhere in the 21 days, that’s not a problem but you do have to start again and try for 21 consecutive days. With this method applied diligently you could have three or four new habits before that silly January 1st deadline. What are you waiting for, start a new habit today.