Getting Over the Hump in Building Lifechanging Habits

uphill I’ve learned since writing The Magic in Just Getting Started that there is a scientific term for “the magic”: the Zeigarnik Effect. In short, the idea is that once we start something, we are more inclined to finish it. In The Magic of Just Getting Started,  I suggested “making a deal” with yourself to start a project, but to give yourself permission to work on it for only 5 minutes (or 10 minutes or 15; it’s your call). The majority of time, you will discover that you will continue the chore beyond the brief minimum time-frame that you committed to–sometimes even completing it. There really is magic (or should I say Zeigarnik?) in just getting started. The “getting started” part seems to be the big hump that prevents serious productivity.

The Zeigarnik effect can be used on any task you’ve been putting off–cleaning a closet, ironing or folding a pile of clothes, cleaning the garage, tax paperwork, reports that need to be written, homework, phone calls, etc., etc., etc. I challenge you to try the Zeigarnik effect on any chore that’s been looming over you, sucking the joy right out of your days, and see if it works like magic for you.

In this post, I want to look at getting over the hump of bigger, longer-term goals as opposed to tasks that, once started, can be completed in a matter of minutes, hours or even days. What’s the secret to, say, getting over the hump of building an impacting habit that can have life-long effects? Are there any “magic” actions to take to set that accomplishment in motion?

I believe there are, but the results won’t be as immediate because the very nature of a long-term or lifelong habit requires more time to realize. The best way I can illustrate “getting over the hump” in building an important, quality-of-life type habit is to give you a couple of illustrations from my own experience.

Bible Study/Reading

I started reading the Bible when I was a young teenager. At first it was “duty reading”—what Christians are supposed to do. At the end of the day, after I was already in bed, I would read a chapter or two before turning off the lights and going to sleep. Other than the fact that I started in a certain book of the Bible and read through it (that is, I didn’t bounce around all over the Bible, reading in a different place every night), there was not much other structure to my reading. Just very simple: pick up where I left off the night before, read till I got sleepy, turn off the lights and go night-night.

About two weeks into this new practice, I realized one day that I was actually looking forward to this end-of-the-day routine. There was an underlying excitement about my daily meeting with God. Looking back, I can better identify that excitement as joy that was borne from the simple, but spiritual, interactions. At the time, I didn’t know what it was; I just knew that I was no longer “duty reading,” I wanted to read.

That was the beginning of a lifelong habit. No, I don’t read the Bible every single day, but I am consistent. And it’s not a “duty,” it is a joy.  (See my series on How I Study the Bible.)


Now, fast forward about 40 years. Lest you think that the Bible reading habit was easy to develop because I was young and impressionable, I want to swing the pendulum from my teens to my 50s and from a spiritual habit to a physical one (However, as I write in my About page, we’re such integrated beings, that it’s really not accurate to categorize any habit as only spirit, soul or body. What’s good for the spirit, flows into my body and soul, and what’s good for the body, affects the other two dimensions, as well).

I have been pretty consistent with exercise since my kids were old enough to be left alone while I would go for a 30-minute walk. But this discipline was ramped up to another level when I graduated from walking to running just a few years ago. I became more consistent than ever before in my life. At first, this was due to the fact that running was totally new and invigorating. I was challenging myself with a new goal every week, and I was excited to see whether or not I could achieve it (check out My Running Story if you haven’t already).

After the “new” wore off, I stayed faithful to running for a whole new reason: I didn’t want to risk losing the progress I had worked so long and hard to build. I’m still kind of a running fanatic for that very reason.

More recently, I have ramped up my commitment level even more using the tool I wrote about in An Amazing Tool for Lifestyle-Change Goals. I went from exercising 3-4 days a week to a very consistent 5-6 days a week (though all exercise days aren’t necessarily running days).

There’s a principle that’s very popular in ‘running literature:’ “The hardest part of the run is just getting out the door.” Some runners even make a deal with themselves. “I only have to run for 5 minutes. After that I can quit, but the first five minutes are non-negotiable.” The beauty of this deal is that no one ever takes advantage of it. After you get out the door and start the run, the hard part (in a manner of speaking) is done. You might as well finish the run at that point. That’s the Zeigarnik Effect in motion!

Getting Over the Hump

Whereas “the hump” in tasks like cleaning a closet or tackling tax paperwork or a writing a research paper is around 10 minutes or so, it has been my experience that the hump in these longer-term, more meaningful lifetime habits is about two weeks, give or take a week or so. Maybe different personalities require different time-frames, but my time-frame–two weeks–is pretty consistent. If I press through the first two weeks of any activity, the difficulty seems to decrease after that. Or maybe I should say that it starts to feel a little more like “me,” and less like something foreign and unfamiliar that I am trying to introduce into my lifestyle.

Don’t misunderstand; I am not saying that I can build a strong habit in two weeks. But if I have been consistent, by the two-week mark, I am no longer having to remind myself to do the new behavior; I seem to “drift” that direction.

Years ago, I heard it put this way: First the discipline, then the desire, then delight. I would call the first two weeks of consistently repeating the same behavior day after day the “discipline” phase–aka, the getting-over-the-hump phase. After that, desire (or “drift”) kicks in. And soon afterwards, delight takes over. “Delight” does not mean that you always get an emotional high from practicing the behavior but that you’d rather do it than risk breaking the habit because you’re so convinced of its value in your life.

Building the Discipline

After reading my two examples, you can probably see what steps to take to replicate the discipline phase:

1. “Show up” day after day. No need to plan on moving mountains or writing masterpieces or running marathons or whatever your particular dream would be. Just show up and do whatever it is that you want to build into a lifelong habit–Bible study, exercise, running, writing, reading, designing, praying, etc.

2. If possible, show up at the same time and place each day. This helps embed the behavior. The time and place become a “trigger” to jumpstart your activity. For me, Bible reading became a bedtime ritual. Same time–bedtime, same place–in my bed. Running, on the other hand, was a morning ritual. It began with putting on my running clothes as soon as I got up in the morning. I then had a couple of other activities that I completed first (a couple of MITs), and then I’d go for a run. This order of activities became my trigger.

3. Commit to sticking with your routine of just showing up and doing “the stuff” for no less than two weeks (the discipline phase). Consider this the “magic” time-frame, the hump you have to get over before you begin to transition into desire.

4. After two weeks or so, take advantage of the “drift” towards the activity. Whatever you do, don’t slack off now! Use the physical and mental momentum you have created to further embed the activity/behavior into your routine. You’re over the hump, now. Keep pressing on, focusing on the value (delight!) your new habit can impart into your life for years to come–maybe even for the rest of your life.

I’d be very interested in hearing what kinds of habits the readers of My Pleasant Places want to build. Would you leave a comment?

Also, I’m curious whether others have experienced the approximate two-week discipline phase which seems to transition to desire after that. Please comment on that, too. Your feedback is very meaningful to me.

After you leave your comments, you may enjoy checking out the following links for more info on the Zeigarnik Effect. The second link is a short 3-minute video that is very enlightening on productivity, in general.

The Zeigarnik Effect

The Science of Productivity

Photo compliments of Jeff S. PhotoArt via Compfight

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4 Responses to Getting Over the Hump in Building Lifechanging Habits

  1. Kristie says:

    This is great insight, Diane!! I use gympact to help motivate me to exercise and it works really well. However, there are weeks where it seems harder to fit it in and my motivation level goes way down. I am going to try the tactic that you wrote about where doing something at the same time creates a trigger. For the next few weeks, instead of just knowing I have to exercise 4 times during the week, I’m going to assign myself specific days to exercise. I’ll let you know how it works out!

  2. Bethra says:

    I am working on my 6th month now of W.O.W fitness that started out as 5 days a week down to 3 and I can see that the trigger for me was the activity of dropping off my daughter at school. As long as she had school I ‘drifted’ straight to exercise. Now that classes have been decreased to 3 days per week I some times feel ‘cheated’ as I pass up that building on my way straight to work. That sounds like the element of ‘desire’ that you spoke about. I now feel inclined to build upon that and delay work on the ‘off’ days to go straight to the trail and walk/run instead. Now that the weather is nice I have also added Saturday which means I can see that process breaking out of the ‘trigger’ pattern as I do not have to drop my daughter off for any kind of activity. So I think I can say I am established in a solid habit of exercise and have no intention of quitting now. 🙂

I love to read your comments!