If you’re trying to establish or maintain a habit, here’s a quick rule of thumb: Do not do for three days what you don’t want to do forever.

(Or, if you prefer, do not skip for three days straight what you want to do forever.)

For example, if your goal is to write daily, do not skip your writing for three days in a row. Or if you’re trying to establish a habit of logging off the computer by 6pm each day, don’t let yourself stay on the computer past that time for three days consecutively.

The magic of the three day rule

We can handle taking a day or two off of something. Perhaps it’s the long-ingrained two-day weekend that keeps us familiar with taking a two day break from our routines (in theory, if not always in practice!).

But once we extend it to three days, it’s no longer a break. It’s a pattern. And once it’s a pattern, it’s just a hop, skip and jump to habit.

Notice how different it feels when you return to work after a two-day weekend versus returning after a three-day weekend. It’s a difference of only one day, and yet it seems to take significantly more effort to get “back into the swing of things” after the three-day break than after the two-day break.

Or if you exercise regularly, think of how your body responds when you jump into your usual workout after a one or two day rest period compared to a three day rest period. One or two days? No problem. Three days? Suddenly you’re feeling a little rusty.

So goes the power of the three day rule: If you don’t want it as a habit, don’t do it for three days straight. And if you do want it as a habit, don’t skip it for three days straight.

There are exceptions… just make sure they don’t usurp the rule!

Does this mean you should never take more than three days off work? Or give yourself a rest from working out if you’re injured? Of course not. Taking holidays is a good thing. And everyone will face disruptions from time to time that throw a wrench into their usual routines. So it goes & c’est la vie!

But what’s not a good thing is turning that holiday from your habit of choice into your new routine.

If you find yourself skipping your habit of choice for more than three days in a row over and over again, you might want to do a gut check on whether you truly want that habit. If your answer is yes, then it might be time to be a little stricter with yourself on what’s a “holiday” and what’s an “excuse.” (We can trick ourselves into confusing them so easily!)

Just don’t stop.

Even if you do break the three day rule, you don’t have to throw in the towel. It’s not that you can’t continue your intended habit after three (or more) days off… it’s just that with each passing day, it takes that much more “oomph” to get back into it.

But I’m always a fan of keeping things in perspective: If you missed three days of writing (or you stayed on the computer longer than planned for three days in a row), you’ve only put a dent in your habit. You haven’t destroyed it. So no self-flagellation over breaking the three day rule, okay?

Kicking yourself ’round the bend over missing three straight days of your habit will only use up energy, attention and time that you could be putting toward re-establishing the pattern. If you skip three days, then go to the next rule of thumb: Getting back into your habit today is better than putting it off ’til tomorrow. 🙂

Remember the Three Day Rule of Effective Habits

One day is a breather.

Two days is a break.

Three days is a new pattern.

If you don’t want to establish the behavior as a pattern, don’t do it for three days straight. And if you DO want to establish or keep a behavior, do not skip it for three days straight.

★ What are your tricks for keeping your habits on track? Have you noticed any difference in habits when you take three or more days away than when you take just one or two days off?

Image Credit: Leo Reynolds | CC License