There’s an oft-quoted rule of thumb that says it takes 21 days to change a habit.
Meanwhile, it’s day 23, and you still can’t forgo your morning croissant in lieu of packing the cheaper (and healthier) granola bar from home. Seems easy enough to do—and yet, your autopilot has you entering the bakery every morning, like clockwork.
Does that make you feel down? Well, it shouldn’t. Habit change is dependent on a lot of factors, all of which may feel like they are conspiring against you. And besides, that 21-day rule seems largely to be the stuff of legend: One University College London study found, on average, it took 66 days to form a new habit.
And who’s got that long? To save you time, we read five of our favorite behavior-change books out there to help you apply these expert ideas to your financial life.
Consider it a sort of CliffNotes to helping to develop far better habits you may not break.
1. The Book: “Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick”
By Jeremy Dean
The Big Idea: Dean, a British psychologist and author of PsyBlog, describes the purpose that habits serve in our lives: In essence, they give your brain a rest from having to make difficult decisions by putting some things on autopilot. (Imagine how mentally drained you’d be if you had to rethink how to back out of your driveway every morning?)
But overcoming this “automaticity” (doing without thinking, in layman’s terms) is precisely why it takes so long to make or break a habit. Dean cites the aforementioned University College London research, which showed the range in time it can take to actually effect change: Drinking a glass of water with breakfast took about 20 days to become automatic, but something harder, like doing 50 sit-ups a day, took more than 84 days!
His Big Tip: Dean says one key to adopting a better habit is to create a connection between a specific situation and a resulting action, and then practice repeating that process. One way to do this is to put the desired outcome into an “if … then” statement. For instance, if you’re trying to be a kinder person this year, say, “If I see a person struggling with a stroller, then I will offer to help.” Dean calls this “implementation intention.”
How It Can Work for You: You can apply implementation intention to just about any money habit you want to adopt. Just make sure the “if” trigger is not so specific that it gives you few opportunities to try out your new habit, says Dean, and not so wide that it it’s too vague. For instance, if you want to chip away at credit card debt, consider trying something like this: “If I am buying something that is less than $30, then I will use cash.”