The 3 Levels of Habit Formation

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The 3 Levels of Habit Formation

Success is all about creating success-creating habits. The better you are at creating habits that stick, the more successful you will be in all areas of life. If you had the habit of exercising every day, you'd be healthier, live longer, and probably be more trim. If you had the habit of marketing your business every day, you'd make more money.

A habit is something you do easily and near-unconsciously. You don't have to try to do it. You just do it. It's a habit. But as is often the case, it's not quite that simple.

The old-school thinking is that habits are formed when you do something every day for 21 days. This is not inaccurate, and this is backed by science. It takes approximately 21 days for a physical neural connection to cement itself into your brain. Before those 21 days, there are no direct connections between the neurons for that activity, so you have to put effort into doing it. After 21 days, it gets easier.

Or does it? Does this mean if you do something new for 21 days straight, on day 22 and forevermore it will be easy to do? No.

This is because there are actually three levels of habit formation that you have to move through to get to the easy part.

Level One 

Level one means that you are willing and able to engage in a new, regular activity, but it's still an effort to do. The neural connection in your brain hasn't been created yet. Every day you do it, it's a struggle. You don't feel like doing it and procrastination is at its highest. When you do it, you don't like it. When you're done, you often don't feel any sense of accomplishment. You're just glad it's over and now you can move on with your day.

Level one lasts anywhere between three weeks (those magical 21 days!) and about four months. It depends on the person and the activity they're trying to install as a habit.

Level one is the hardest level, by far. Most people are unsuccessful because they can't handle the discomfort of level one.

Level Two

Level two happens after three weeks to four months at level one. Level two is when the physical neural connections have all been made in your brain, and you are both physically and psychologically "comfortable" with doing your new thing every day. It's no longer a battle to do it consistently. It's become somewhat normal and a regular part of your routine.

When you perform your new habit, you feel really good about it and you feel a strong sense of accomplishment. Your self esteem ratchets up a few notches.

However, you still don't necessarily like doing it. If trouble comes up in your schedule, you'll skip it without a second thought, and maybe even be a little thankful that you did. You won't skip it often; it's still a habit and you still do it most of the time. It's just that it's not something you're dying to do.

Level Three

After about a year (or perhaps a little longer) of doing your new habit on a consistent basis, you enter into level three. Level three is when the new habit becomes a part of you. You no longer view it as something that must be done to achieve a particular result. Instead, it's simply a mandatory part of your life now.

You know you've hit level three when you feel weird if you don't do your activity that day. You go out of your way to make sure you do your new habit every single day (or close to it) so you don't feel weird or "off."

You not only like doing your habit, but your body and mind compel you to do it. You must do it.

If you have many success-creating habits at level three, you will be successful. It simply can't be any other way. However, this means you have to put several habits through the process of levels one and two.

An Example

Here's an example from my life. Several years ago I made the decision to start doing 20 minutes of hard cardio exercise at least five days a week. The objective behind this was not to lose weight (since exercise doesn't help lose body fat as much as people think it does; it's mostly about what you eat). Instead it was to be more healthy and live a longer and more happy life.

I went out to my garage, dusted off my old exercise bike that I virtually never used, and brought it into the house. Every morning for five days a week, I forced myself to throw on some shorts and a T shirt as soon as I woke up, set a 20 minute timer, blast some of my heavy metal music, and cranked that stupid bike until the timer went off.

I hated it. Getting myself to do it was a real pain in the ass. It completely screwed up my morning routine. I hated getting sweaty. I wanted to just wake up and take a nice shower. I was deep in level one.

Regardless, I kept at it. After a few weeks, I slowly moved into level two. Doing 20 minutes on the bike was no longer hard to do. It was a simple thing. I still didn't love it. I still wished I didn't have to do it, but doing it wasn't any big deal any more.

A few months later, knowing that its easier to create a habit if you do it seven days a week instead of five, I started doing 20 minutes of cardio every day, seven days a week, unless I had a very unusual morning. Some days I would even do 30 minutes instead of 20, just to "catch up."

I don't know when I entered level three. I think it took me about 1.5 years of daily hitting 20 minutes on that bike. Today, I'm happy to say that I'm well into level three with this particular habit. Not only do I do it every day, but I actually look forward to doing it. If for some reason my schedule is really weird that morning and I don't get to it, I feel a little...weird. Just a little. Usually on these rare days I will ride the bike for 20 minutes later in the morning or in the early afternoon so I can feel "normal" again.

This habit is now permanently implanted into my being. As a result, I will live longer, be happier, and experience less health problems throughout my entire life. The pain of going through levels one and two was well worth it.

Your goal should be to get several success-creating habits to level three. Then success is easy.

This article was originally published on January 27, 2015