How long agile teams need to build new habits

May 15, 2019

If your team runs agile retrospectives, it’s likely that it already knows which habits it needs to focus on. But how long is it going to take? One week? One sprint? A month? A few agile retros? Shipping the next epic? Oh I know, 21 days right? Wrong.

The 21 Day Myth

Dr. Maxwell Maltz originally published “Psycho-Cybernetics” in 1960 to summarize the extensive research he had accumulated across his career as a prominent plastic surgeon in the 1950s. In the research, he detailed a pattern in his patients about self-image where even after having cosmetic surgery like a nose job, it would take a minimum of 21 days for the patient to get used to their new face. It was so prominent that he noticed that for patients who had amputated limbs, they would sense a phantom limb for at least 21 days after the operation. He went on to extrapolate this pattern to his own tendencies and deem that “these, and many other commonly observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.

The book went on to sell millions of copies and inspire self-help gurus like Tony Robbins, Zig Ziglar, Brian Tracy and more who transformed and reduced the nuances of the research into a snappy “21 days to form a habit!” And here we are today.

It Usually Takes 66 Days

In a study performed by Phillippa Lally during her PhD work for her Doctor of Philosophy on Health Psychology at the University College London, published by the European Journal of Social Psychology entitled “Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice”, they were able to figure out how long it actually takes to form a habit.

In the study, her team examined 96 people over a 12 week period who chose simple habits to add to their routines and were monitored by whether or not they did them each day and how automatic the behaviour felt.

The research found that it took on average 66 days for a new behaviour to become automatic but could range from 18 to 254 days depending on the person and habit.

Your team might be different. Perhaps tackling these habits as a group might make things easier. Most of the research above was self-image and health-based after all. But the lesson is clear. It takes a long time for people to build new habits. Simply bringing up something in an agile retro, writing it on a whiteboard, calling it an action item, and acknowledging it once during the next sprint will not make the habit stick. It will take months of re-enforcement to get this right. Be patient with your team. Bring things up early. Keep the habits top of mind. Your team may not even have the chance to be together for 66 days, let alone 254 days.

If your team is having trouble sticking to your action items and lessons from your agile retrospectives, we’re here to help! We built Sprintlio for exactly this reason.

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