Julie Hambleton
Julie Hambleton
October 2, 2018 ·  4 min read

The Tortoise and the Hare: How to Form Habits Slowly and Steadily

How many times have you heard the age-old saying, “Slow and steady wins the race?” Probably hundreds. It’s a simple yet profound piece of wisdom that gets thrown around a lot (probably too much). But, people underestimate how much those six little words can impact their lives.

Aesop’s Fable: The Tortoise and the Hare

You’ve heard or even watched the story countless times. (Have you watched Disney’s 1934 animation of it below?) Basically, there’s an over-confident hare who’s too speedy for his own good who races a tortoise, one of the most laidback and slow animals you could have chosen to compete.

Long story short, the hare bolted so far ahead he thought he could get away with a nap. Little did he know, the tortoise who walked continuously slow and steady would eventually pass the hare. Woken up by the crowd’s cheering for the tortoise, the hare raced to the finish line but it was too late… the tortoise had won by a “hare.”

There are many different interpretations of Aesop’s fable, but we’re going to approach it from the perspective of achieving your goals. There’s one simple question we need to ask: How long does it take to form a habit? Because until you can form healthy and helpful habits, it will be near impossible to stay disciplined enough to reach the goals you set.

How Long It Really Takes to Build a New Habit

Contrary to popular belief, it takes more than the famed 21 days to form a new habit. In July 2009, Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher at University College London, published a study with her team in the European Journal of Social Psychology. Their aim was to find out the exact number of days it took for people to form personal habits. [1]

After three months, researchers analyzed 96 participants who had each chosen a single habit. Each individual tracked whether or not they did the habit-forming action or behavior and how automatic it felt. As it turns out, it took participants 2+ months to form a new, habitual behavior. The exact number of days it took, on average, was 66. [2]

We know – it seems like a long time, but it is possible! And we’re going to suggest some ways that you can get there.

How to Form a Habit that Sticks

  1. Choose one habit you would like to make a part of your daily routine.
  2. Determine a consistent time and place you will do that thing every day (or at least try).
  3. Repeat until that behavior becomes an automatic and effortless habit. [3]

Nailing this will set you up for success and make the two-month habit-forming journey far more enjoyable and way less intimidating – especially when your habit of choice improves your health and increases your lifespan.

Here are some easy, real-life examples you can use to form life-changing habits that will make you healthier and happier…

  • If you want to start flossing, write “FLOSS” on a sticky note and put it on your bathroom mirror so it literally stares you in the face before you leave for work or go to bed.
  • If you want to start running, set a phone alarm that goes off at the same time every day (and don’t hit the snooze button) or place your running shoes by the front door instead of in the closet.
  • If you feel like you don’t have time to exercise but want to stay strong, choose to do planks or other quick exercises during every annoying commercial break.
  • If you want to drink more water throughout the day, get a reusable water bottle and keep it in your bag or purse – somewhere you will see it often.
  • If you want to eat or cook more healthily, place a healthy cookbook right beside your oven. That way you’ll see every day, never be at a loss for what to cook, and you know the ingredients will be nourishing.

By setting up these external triggers in the same place, they should be a constant daily reminder that will increase your chance of sticking to your new habit! And don’t worry if you forget at first… science says it’s OK and is giving you permission to. Just like the tortoise, even going slow and steady can produce powerful, long-lasting results. So, what are you waiting for? Give it a try!

[1] Lally, P., Jaarsveld, C. H., Potts, H. W., & Wardle, J. (2009, July 16). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ejsp.674

[2] Clear, J. (2018, July 13). How Long Does it Take to Form a Habit? Backed by Science. Retrieved from https://jamesclear.com/new-habit

[3] Gardner, B., Lally, P., & Wardle, J. (2012, December). Making health habitual: The psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3505409/