Most self-help books will tell you that it takes 21 days to change a habit. This factoid is based on a 1960s study of amputees by plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz, who reasoned that because it took only 21 days for amputees to adjust to the loss of a limb, other life-changes should only take as long… This looks like a very shaky assumption to me! Then again, a more recent – and more scientific study by Philippa Lally in 2009, suggests that it takes longer – more like 66 days.
Along with almost all of my clients, I wish it took less time. My experience (both of my own personal change process, and of me supporting change in my clients) leads me to think it is usually longer. So – thanks to some well-placed provocation right now from my friend Dan, who believes that change can be instant, and who is embarking on a 7-day change programme with his family, I’m overhauling my assumptions about this important subject.
What do I currently believe? First, I do not believe that change (let alone transformation) is as simple as setting goals, applying effort and getting results. The empirical facts are that most change efforts fail. Some key assumptions that inform my own ‘theory of practice’ about change are:
- Change is based on need and desire. We simply have to have to want to change!
- Successful change is not about ‘fixing things’ but is a creative process.
- The extent to which we can change is directly proportional to the amount of support we can make use of - and the nature of what we experience as 'supportive' is very personal.
- Along with Harvard Professor Robert Keegan, I believe that we have to explore and understand the reasons for our immunity to change. My own sense is that an overlooked reason for our inbuilt immunity is our Inner Critic – perhaps our greatest source of resistance to change.
- The structure of our beliefs has to be altered for change to be sustainable - so we need to explore why we are invested in sub-optimal behaviours and what we get out of not changing... Some of these might even be systemic, rather than personal factors.
- Gestalt theory suggests that change happens when we become more fully who we are, rather than try to be what we are not. We have to accept ourselves just as we are, first off!
- Our self-concept has to adjust – and this requires dedication and practice. There is definitely some element of will-power involved!
I notice from this list, that what I do not do so much of, is to set up a vision for the change I am embarking upon. Robert Fritz, in his classic book, The Path of Least Resistance, says that we have to establish a structural tension between our vision and our current reality. Similarly, Ellen Langer, who writes about the psychology of possibility, advises us not to start from where we are but from where we’d like to be. OK – I’m going to try this out for size to see if it makes a difference to my practice. But it’s also about time that I developed my own approach more fully – so watch this space!
What are your beliefs and experiences about making change – how long does it take and what is your own approach?