How to form good habits: Lessons from high-achievers

High-achievers form positive habits that help them get ahead. Whether you're trying to study more or stick to a new training routine, here are some useful lessons from leaders in their fields

In 1960 world renowned plastic surgeon, Maxwell Maltz, published a book called Psycho-Cybernetics, in which he hypothesised that it took a minimum of 21 days to form a new habit. It sold over 30 million copies worldwide, firmly embedding the '21 Days' phenomenon into the global psyche.

The problem? Maltz was wrong. Not only that, his miscalculations inadvertently set unreasonable expectations for a generation of people looking to overhaul their lives.

Health psychology researchers at University College London set the record straight in 2009. Their study found on average it takes 66 days for new behaviours to become automatic, with the time varying wildly from 18 to 254 days depending on the behaviour, the person and the circumstances. They also found that missing one opportunity to perform the behaviour didn’t sabotage the whole habit-forming process.

In summary, don't beat yourself up if new habits don’t click after just three weeks. Slipping up once or twice doesn’t make the whole process irretrievable. Embracing a longer timeline for success can help you realise that forming new habits is a gradual process and not an overnight fix. With this understood, you can manage your expectations and commit to making small, incremental improvements that will add up to big change over time.

To help you do that, we’ve turned to some of the most successful individuals in their field –from a legendary military strategist to the guy who made Apple one of the world's biggest brands – to understand how they formed the good habits that enabled them reach the top. 

James Clear: Focus, consistency, and patience are key

A bona-fide habit-forming expert, James Clear is author of the New York Times best-seller, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. Clear says there are three simple things that pave the way for success, whatever your goals are.

Focus. 'You can't be good at everything and it's hard to be great at more than one thing,' says Clear. 'Pick the one thing you're going to become great at and focus on it.'

Consistency. 'Focus is useless if you're only focused every now and then,' says Clear. 'It's showing up time after time that makes the difference.'

Patience. 'If you're focused and consistent, then let time work for you,' says Clear. 'Results will come when they come. Focus on the system, not the goal.'

With those foundational rules in place, here are some habit-forming tips from some of the world's highest achieving people ever.

Sun Tzu: Choose your battles wisely

Legendary military strategist Sun Tzu preferred winning without fighting, and taking on the easiest battles first. In The Art of War he famously wrote, 'In war, the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won.'

Tzu focused on finding the easiest way to achieve a specific goal and, 25 centuries on, you can adopt the same approach to all sorts of habit forming in your daily life.

Improving at something isn't just about determination. It’s also a matter of strategy. What people assume to be a lack of willpower is often just a result of trying to build good habits in the wrong conditions.

In practical terms, that means don’t try to start doing morning workouts when you're not getting enough sleep, or decide to give up chocolate and booze over Christmas. Fight battles you're destined to win.

Trent Dyrsmid: Use visual cues

23-year-old stockbroker, Trent Dyrsmid, followed a simple daily habit to boost his productivity. He began each morning with two jars on his desk, one filled with 120 paper clips, the other empty. As soon as he finished a sales call he would move one paper clip from the full jar into the empty jar, then dial the phone again. Within 18 months he was bringing in $5 million to the firm.

Dyrsmid's story illustrates the power of a visual trigger to reinforce good habits. As the visual evidence mounts up, you'll feel proud of achievements that feel tangible and real, rather than abstract and elusive.

The visual cue approach can be applied to daily performance goals too, from completing 100 press-ups or drinking eight glasses of water. But before you start bulk buying paperclips, search for a free goal-tracking app. There are plenty that won't just show your progress in visual terms, but will also remind you to keep up the good work, adding an additional element of accountability.

Charles Darwin: Go your own way

Okay, so Darwin never gave this bit of Fleetwood Mac sounding advice. But when the habits of 161 achieving writers, composers, scientists and philosophers – including Charles Darwin – were analysed, there was one common thread: they all approached habit formation differently.

'The sad fact is, there’s no magic formula, no one-size-fits-all solution – not for ourselves, and not for the peo­ple around us,' says Gretchen Rubin, author of Better Than Before: Mastering The Habits Of Our Everyday Lives. 'We won’t make ourselves more creative and productive and healthy by copying other people’s habits, even the habits of geniuses.'

Instead, says Rubin, we must know our own nature, and what habits serve us best. So before you reach for Steve Jobs' biography and invest in 365 days’ of black turtlenecks to cure your productivity bottleneck, ask yourself, 'What worked well for me in the past?'

Maybe you sleep better on the days you exercise. Maybe you train harder in a group setting than by yourself. Maybe you need strict deadlines. 'With habits, as with happiness, the secret is to figure out ourselves,' writes Rubin. 'When we shape our habits to suit our own nature, our own interests, and our own values, we set ourselves up for success.'