automaticity: the x-factor in habit formation

Have you heard it takes 21 days for form a habit? Perhaps you’re the wiser, having read the details of psychologist Pippa Lally’s research at the University College of London that suggests habits take much longer, up to 254 days, or about 66 days on average. That’s as far as most people get. But to really understand habits, especially why some are so elusive, you must understand the x-factor…automaticity.

(For background on the “21 day” theory, check out this great post by James Clear or read about the study yourself here.)

Automaticity is a measure of how automatic a behavior becomes. The easier it is, the higher the automaticity. The higher the automaticity, the more likely you’ll do something without having to think about it. By definition…it’s become a habit.

Using a 42 point scale, participants in Lally’s research were asked to record how automatic their new behavior felt when they did it. Not surprisingly, she found that automaticity jumped significantly in the early days of repeated behavior, then plateaued. The peak level at which the activity plateaued was considered the time at which the activity had become a “habit”.

But there’s a catch.

Some of the activities never climbed even so far as half way up the automaticity scale before they peaked. They were considered habits at that point, the but truth is that they still required significant effort or intentionality to get them done. At best you might say they had become routine.

The problem with routines, they can be easily broken. We’ve seen this ourselves. Our founder Mark had tracked how consistently he journaled for months. He found that journaling was becoming almost automatic. In fact, after earning his irunurun points on this action week after week, he finally decided to take it off his dashboard.  What happened?

Within two weeks, the “habit” was gone.

He wasn’t journaling anymore. Yikes!  The truth is that journaling had become as easy as it was going to get, but it still wasn’t automatic. It wasn’t really a habit, so when he stopped tracking it and stopped being accountable for it, he stopped doing it.

So here is our caution. Some behaviors may never truly become habits. Don’t beat yourself up. There is nothing wrong with you. Automaticity varies by activity, by person, and by circumstance. If you find that you get off track even after doing something consistently for months, it might just be a low automaticity activity for you.

Just keep tracking it. Talk about it regularly with your accountability partner. Reflect on why it is important. If it is worth doing, you can do it whether it actually becomes a habit or not.

Run hard!