How Long Does it Really Take to Build a Habit?

This is a cross-post from Girlsgone40.  Enjoy!

Girlsgone40 is a year-long challenge because our birthdays happened to fall about 10 months apart.  And while the main goal of the challenge is to run 40K of races, really, we’d just like to become healthier people.  We’d like to build better habits.

Turns out, we made a great choice in the timing of our challenge.

How long do you think it takes to build a habit? (by “build a habit ”, I mean it’s easier to do the action than not to  – – it feels odd not to do it.)

yellow cable

Is the number 21 days floating in the back of your mind?  Search “21 Days” on Amazon and you’ll find over 700,000 results promising things like a new body, a new mind, and even a new novel in 21 days!

Also, you can get a healthier mouth in 21 days. If Listerine says it, it must be true.

Or is it 30 days?  Maybe you’re thinking of Morgan Spurlock’s 30 Days.

It doesn’t matter.  Both numbers fall a bit short for forming a true habit out of something that takes real effort in the beginning.

Scientific research into the topic tells us how long habits really take to form.

On average, it’s 66 days.

Depending on the difficulty of the habit, it might take more time (adding 50 sit-ups after morning coffee might take 84 days), it might take less (drinking a glass of water after breakfast only about 20 days). Some habits might take over 250 days.  There’s no magic number.  It really depends on how hard that particular change is for that individual to make.  Boo!  But missing a day here and there doesn’t seem to matter in the long run.

1 thing is 100% guaranteed.  If you don’t start, you’ll never change.


While the Cat’s Away…

That would be a cuter title if we didn’t actually have some mice in our house.  As I grew up in suburbia where everything was killed to make way for shopping, those little poopers just gross me out.  Plus, we don’t actually have a cat.

But I do have my husband, who had to go out of town unexpectedly recently.  So, on the night he left, after feeding my kids ice cream for dinner,

The GOOD life

The GOOD life

and terrorizing the local goose family,


Actually, credit to the kids. They were really pretty sweet with them.

I totally rebelled against Joe, who usually asks me to leave the assembling of items to him (for good reasons I won’t get into now other than to say I generally like to “wing” it), and asked  the kids to put together our new shoe organizer with me.

These types of projects are great for kids because the stakes aren’t too high.  They have, what I like to call, an even Spiderman ratio (that is, an even power to responsibility ratio).  The work isn’t too hard and the outcome, while not necessarily spectacular,  is realized quickly.  Plus, they can see instant results of their efforts which is great for their confidence.

In addition to reading, math, listening, direction-following (unless you are me), and stick-to-itiveness, chores like this teach the kids to contribute toward the common good of the family and that we all have a responsibility to each other to make a good life.

For me, that is the most important lesson I can teach them.



Kids want and need real responsibility (don’t we all?).  Doing household chores teaches them all sorts of lessons that get missed in school.  Like the fact that tasks don’t need to be assigned to get done.  And that sometimes effort doesn’t matter if the job doesn’t get done because at the end of the day, it just needs to get done.

Here’s the question:  are you raising “doers” or “takers”?

When there is work to be done do your kids leave it until asked or jump right in?  If there is work to be done and they walk past it then they are making a choice to leave it for someone else to do.  And that stinks.  Because eventually it won’t just be you picking up the slack.  It will be the rest of us.  And that REALLY stinks.  We have too many people in society already who do that.

I know.  I know.  You’re busy.  You’re tired.  They already have so many other things to do.  It is much easier to just to it yourself, especially when kids are young like mine.  I think that often.  And chances are, most of the time the task will come out better.  But I think of child-rearing and homeschooling like one big, long, humanity/citizen apprenticeship/internship.  We are making people, hopefully fulfilled, competent ones, who add more to this world than they take from it.  The best way to do that is to teach them to do real work with real outcomes for themselves.

Plus, if you do it yourself, you just don’t get moments like this where you 20-month old single-handedly halts progress with an impromptu game of hide-and-seek.

She totally won't see me in this 1/2 finished shoe organizer

She totally won’t see me in this 1/2 finished shoe organizer

Is it Possible for Children to Learn Without “Instruction”?

WARNING:  My editor (hi, honey!) says this is the most boring post ever.  But it’s what’s on my mind right now.  I would love to hear what you think.  So here goes:

As a parent, I love to watch my kids learn from each other.  Molly shows Joseph how to pause for the comma, Joseph reads board books to JohnJohn, and JohnJohn gets both kids sounding out letters for him.

Joseph shows Molly how to somersault, Molly advises Joseph on how to advocate for himself to Mommy, and JohnJohn gets both kids laughing on a regular basis.

As the kids get older, I find that if there is something they want to do – – like make muffins, or enter a contest, or go on a trip, or play a video game – – they will read and ask questions about it until they figure out how to do it.  They are natural learners!

Is it me or does the cupcake that your child bakes herself sweeter?

Is it me or does the cupcake that your child bakes herself taste sweeter?

And yet, I still don’t trust that my kids will learn without formally structured work in subjects like math and grammar.  I have to admit, I just don’t trust that they will gain proficiency on their own.

I am starting to wonder if that is a failing on my part as a parent and teacher.   Have I been so conditioned by my own education that I am making my kids jump through needless hoops?  Am I wasting their time by making them do workbooks and rote lessons?

I am a really bad unschooler making my kids do math tables

I am a really bad unschooler making my kids do math tables

“Unschooling” was first defined in the 1970s by educator John Holt, (the “father” of unschooling) as “allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world, as their parents can comfortably bear.”   It is interest driven, child-led, self-directed learning.  It is a branch of homeschooling that does not use curricula.

Despite the age of the movement, education researchers have not done much looking at unschooling methods and outcomes.  However, The Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning (Volume 7, Issue 14) recently published two papers on the topic.


The first, by Peter Gray and Gina Riley, The Challenges and Benefits of Unschooling, According to 232 Families Who Have Chosen that Route, reports that the biggest challenge for unschoolers was overcoming feelings of criticism from others.

The reported benefits included “better learning, better attitudes, and better psychological and social well-being for the children; plus increased closeness, harmony, and freedom for the whole family.”

The results of this research make sense to me.  However, the authors’ use of self-selected unschoolers, without comparing them to other types of homeschoolers, muddled whether the results correlate to unschooling or simply homeschooling in general.

The main advantage of unschooling (and I would add, all homeschooling, even if you spend some time on curricula)  is increased time available for other, presumably more beneficial, activities.  Stepping out of the relatively inefficient traditional schooling model, in general, reclaims an enormous amount of time.  That is a fact born out by our own experience this year.

Perhaps if we didn’t use workbooks and assignments we would have even more of this precious commodity?


The second, by professors of education and unschooling mothers, Kellie Rolstad and Kathleen Kesson, Unschooling, Then and Now, compares their unschooling experiences in two different eras, one in the early days of unschooling and the other over 20 years later.

These accounts are interesting in that they actually demonstrate how unschooling works in their families.  I was especially interested to learn the importance of technology from Dr. Rolstad, who handled the “Unschooling Now”, perspective.  She writes:

Unschooled  I-Gen children, freed from the demands and constraints that school places on schooled children, spend their time engaged in their own pursuits, many of which involve playing with technology, whether designed for play, such as videogames, or for seemingly more serious purposes, such as computer programming .  YouTube videos provide an astonishing array of learning opportunities as well, with “how-to” videos on almost anything imaginable, e.g., how to gut a fish; how to speak ancient Greek; how to calculate angular refraction, how to apply anime-style makeup, etc. 

I worry that my kids may have too much screen time already.   I also worry that, without the guidance of formal lessons, my children won’t master a subject comprehensively, especially in subjects that I am less comfortable with myself, but that I also value highly, like math.

While I totally understand how my kids might seek out a video on anime-style make-up or how to clean a fish, I’m more doubtful that, without some guidance, my children will pursue information on, say, basic math, grammar and spelling.

I guess the question is, do I really need to manage my kids until they memorize those addition tables now or can I “comfortably bear” it if they wait to memorize them for years or if they never memorize them at all?

Are you a one Marshmallow or two Marshmallow Type of Person?

Stay with it, and you'll get the wisdom of this Einstein Quote

Stay with it, and you’ll get the wisdom of this Einstein quote.

Recently a friend of mine asked if my two oldest kids would participate in a replication of the the 1972 Stanford Marshmallow experiment for her daughter’s science assignment.   We had been in the house most of the week, the kids love marshmallows, and I am interested in all things pertaining to the willpower and grit of my children.  So I said, what the heck!

The experiment – – which entails having a child sit alone in a room at a table with a single marshmallow and the promise of a second marshmallow if they can wait the allotted time (15 minutes) – – has become a benchmark for psychological research on self control and success.  In short, if a child can wait for the second marshmallow they tend to have higher standardized test scores than their counterparts, lower levels of substance abuse, and their parents reported that they were more competent (whatever that means).

I was pretty sure that Molly would wait for the second marshmallow.  In addition to her will of iron she really loves sweets.  And she generally thinks before she acts.

Joseph, however, had me on the edge of my seat.  On the one hand, he can have extreme focus when he feels like it.  But he generally takes action the moment that a thought pops into his head.  He loves sweets too but it seems like any shiny or sweet distraction can, well…distract him.

You are wondering whether he ate the marshmallow, aren’t you?

He didn’t!

Both kids waited.  Angela Duckworth would be so proud!

I am happy to know that my kids could wait, especially as the video taken of them during the study showed how hard it was for them.  It took great willpower for both of them to pass the time.

Molly danced around the room and counted to herself as she repeatedly peeked back at the marshmallow.  She eventually turned her back to the table with the marshmallow on it so that she couldn’t see it at all.

Joseph, in keeping with his personality, pushed every limit.  He played with the marshmallow.  He smelled it.  He licked it once.  He licked it twice.  He licked it a third time!  He licked it four times!  He put his teeth on it without actually biting it.

I, probably like you, want my kids to stick with their goals until they achieve them.  Especially as, according to follow-up research to this experiment, the ability to delay gratification remains with the person for life.

Some of success is intelligence and/or talent.  It appears to be hard wired.  OK.  Some of it is trust.  I get that.  My kids trusted that they would get the reward if they waited because we do not break our promises to them.

But what about the grit that is taught?  How do we, as parents, teach that to our kids?  How do we teach our kids stamina?  Is it just practice at delayed gratification?  Or is there something more?

Professor Duckworth, who studies this for a living (another totally cool I job I did not know about until now) spoke about this very subject in this 2009 TEDxBlue talk:

As you can see from watching it, she doesn’t give an answer to how to teach perseverence. “Grit” is certainly integral to success.  And it can be taught.  But she does not specify how.  She leaves the issue to us.

I do think she hints at the answer though.  I think part of what she is saying is that making a habit out of being in an uncomfortable place for part your day makes us comfortable with being uncomfortable.  And tolerating discomfort is a large part of achieving a goal.  So, if we want our kids to have will power, we must as parents and educators, make the effort to instill in our kids the ability to tolerate some pain and suffering.  That is very hard in America’s culture of instant gratification.

That’s the hard part of teaching.  Heck, it is the hard part of parenting.  But that is the job.  And most days I think that it is more important than teaching addition tables or grammar and punctuation.  As Walter Mischel, the Stanford professor of psychology in charge of the experiment said, “We can’t control the world, but we can control how we think about it.

Forget your kids.  Interested in your own grit score?  Find out while eating all the marshmallows you want.

One Foot in Front of the Other

Back before we had kids my husband and I ran together often.  Short runs.  Long runs.  Slow runs.  Fast runs.  Race runs.  I loved running so much that even when I broke my foot at mile 16 of a marathon, I still finished the race.  And then, two years later, when I thought I was healed and tried to run a shorter race (1/2 marathon) I broke it again.  But I still finished!  Because I love running.  Also, I am a very determined (stupid) person.

After we had kids and I got some sense about taking care of my injuries and not running for awhile, I missed running.  I missed a lot about running.  The time with my husband.  The time to think.  The time to feel my powerful little frame doing its thing.  The time to just enjoy the beauty and variety of the routes  I took.  I missed it all.

Now that my daughter (and my son, almost) is old enough to run I am feeling the itch again.  Part of it is that Molly is a born runner, all lungs and legs.  It turns out she loves running too.  And not just any kind of running.  She loves slow paced, long distance, fun running.  She is a perfect running partner for me right now.

#8 on my bucket list is running a 5k with my kids.  The kids and my husband are interested in running a race together.   I love it when we all share a goal!  We are going to walk the Race for the Cure this Mother’s Day with my sisters-in-law and their daughters, which is something I am really looking forward to doing.  And hopefully run The Color Run or something equally fun this summer.  They seem as excited about it as I am.  And so I am slowly adding running back into my exercise routines.

Let me tell you something.  It is hard.  Really, really, hard.  I cannot believe it has only been a few years!  Right now all I want to do is run a 10 minute mile and it hurts!  But I will do it.  I will get comfortable running a 5k again.  This time, no injuries.  One step at a time.

I had to take a picture of my feet because my face was sucking wind so hard

I had to take a picture of my feet because my face was sucking wind so hard.

Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss, from your Friend at the Waiting Place.

We moved back to the East Coast about 2 ½ years ago.  We’ve been renting a home ever since.  First we waited to see if my husband liked his job.  He did.  For awhile we were waiting to sell our home in the Midwest.  We finally did!  And then we were waiting to find the right town.  After switching towns within the same state, and putting 98 ¾% of all of our belongings in storage for a year (I miss you coffee maker), we did!  Then we were waiting to find the right house in the right price range.  We did!   And now that we found it, we are waiting for a response to our offer.  We have been waiting longer than we had hoped.

After all this time, the waiting is hard.

Wish I could buy this at the store

I don’t need to tell you about the magic that is Dr. Seuss.  We read his books a lot, especially the longer ones because the kids think they are getting away with something delaying bedtime.

The other night as we re-read “Oh, The Places You’ll Go” for the 236th time, Molly pointed out, “Hey, they’re waiting too!”

And we stopped reading and instead talked about all the characters and what silly (and not so silly things) they were waiting for on those waiting place pages.

The waiting place (2)(1)

The Waiting Place seems so much more fun in the book

Joseph chimed in, almost reminiscing (can a 4-year-old reminisce?) about the rest of the book, “Yeah, they’re waiting but then they get to the part where they win!  But what is that thing they hit?  The swump?  Swump?  Sump?”

“SLUMP!,”  Molly yelled.  (Not cool, Molly.  You almost woke the baby.)

“Yeah, the slump.  What’s a slump?”

I explained “slump” and Joseph, with his usual optimism replied, “They’ll get into that slump.  Maybe they can turn around and see their Mom?  Or be friends with some of those other people on the page? They can all wait together until they win. ”

Dr. Seuss, I don’t know why we grabbed that book at that time.  And I don’t know why my kids chose to stop reading at that time.  But I am glad they did.

You, and they, remind me that we all have our own waiting places.  We are not alone.  And that there’s hope.

The Upside of Waiting?

Happy Birthday, you magic man!!  I’m sorry I couldn’t wait until March 2nd to post this.

Pretending to be Brave

Actually, this is real bravery.

Learning to fly

Molly is not a major risk taker (unlike some other kids I know, I’m looking at you, Joseph).

That being said, ever since she started swim lessons, and gotten over her initial fear of getting her face wet, she has given her very best to do what her coach asks, even when she is afraid. Well, everything except diving.  She is absolutely terrified of diving.


That is, until today.

No one else showed up for swim team because school was cancelled due to weather.  So, Molly’s coach decided they should tackle diving.  And they did.  For almost an HOUR.  This is the last jump she made before she finally dove in headfirst.  I was there to see her face before she hit the water.  She looked so scared.  And so determined.  And so brave.