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The Four Biggest Myths About Changing Your Habits

We talked to an expert on habit change to figure out what most of us have all wrong about self-improvement.

[Photo: Flickr user See-ming Lee]

Everyone has that one habit they've tried to break over and over, with no success. Could believing the wrong things about our behaviors be holding us back?

We talked habit change with New York Times best-selling author Gretchen Rubin earlier this week in a live chat about some of the findings and strategies she outlines in her new book Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives.

She busted these common habit myths for us:

There Is No Magic Number Of Hours

The biggest misconception of habit change is in the timing, Rubin said. It doesn’t take 30 days, or any other arbitrary number of practice hours or weeks of schedule keeping. "A study showed that habits formed ‘on average’ in 66 days, but actually, that number is meaningless. Some habits form instantly, some resist for months and months."

Read more: Why Successful Habits Are About Structure, Not Effort

Not All Successful People Have The Same Habits

Just like there’s no set number of days to make a new habit stick, there’s no secret formula for the right habits to keep for a productive life. This is the key conclusion of Better Than Before, Rubin said. The habits of the highly successful are all over the board. "You can point to a hugely successful person who had just about any set of habits you can think of," she said. "But here's the one thing that all those successful people have in common: they know the habits that work for them, and they make sure that that's how they live their lives." The key is in knowing yourself, not copying the routines of someone else.

Read more: Secrets Of The Most Productive People

Distraction Should Be Embraced, Not Avoided

There are bad distractions and there are good distractions, Rubin said. "Using distraction as a strategy involves mindfully turning our attention away from something." But what’s the difference? Good distractions do two things:

Calm us. Instead of turning a frustrating moment over and over in your memory, distractions help derail the cycle to let your mind rest. Rubin gave the example of turning on a favorite TV show at the end of a long day to take your mind off of things for a while.

Soothe our cravings. If you’re fighting a temptation—like reaching for another glass of wine or a cigarette—turning to a different distraction can refocus your cravings. "People often assume that cravings intensify with time, but after 15 minutes, most fade," Rubin said. "So if you can hold out for 15 minutes, you're making good progress."

Read more: 3 Reasons You Should Let Yourself Get Distracted

Backsliding Doesn’t Mean You’re Doomed

Understanding why we slip up helps prevent future lapses in habit. There are two big reasons for most backsliding, according to Rubin: a failure to recognize triggers that precede it, and a lack of planning to get back on track when it happens.

But if you do blow it, the whole effort isn’t in vain. Rubin suggests failing "small, not big," by thinking about your day in segments. If you mess up in the morning, you can get back on track for midday, instead of saying, "I’ll try again tomorrow."

Read more: The Skills You Need To Make Failure Productive