Think It Takes 21 Days to Form a Habit? Think Again!

There’s a common misconception that you can form a habit in 21 days. Like lots of other urban legends, this one is rooted in a little bit of truth. Dr. Maxwell Maltz was a plastic surgeon who wrote the blockbuster self-help book Psycho-Cybernetics in 1960. Dr. Maltz noticed that when he performed plastic surgery on patients, it took most of them approximately 21 days to become accustomed to their new nose, chin, or implants. Over the years, his message got twisted and restated by his many fans, among them teachers, coaches and self-help gurus, who insisted that it took 21 days to form a habit. But research tells us that it can take up to 66 days to form a habit that sticks.


While we tend to think of habits as behaviors that get repeated, in psychological terms, habits are actions that are automatically triggered in the context of a specific situation. For example, putting on your seatbelt after getting in the car or washing your hands after using the bathroom. When the action is repeated based on the contextual cue that triggers it, it becomes a habit.

When I was a kid, people rarely used seatbelts. Changing people’s seatbelt-wearing habits required a long-term, multi-pronged effort including legislation, advertising, and even the cooperation of film and television studios showing the stars buckling up. I was part of the effort to lobby TV producers to portray their lead characters buckling up. The goal wasn’t just to educate people about safety, it was to make seatbelt wearing automatic. Now, if you try to back out of your driveway without giving your kids the necessary time to buckle their belts, you’re likely to hear them holler. Most people don’t even think about it anymore – they just secure the belt. That’s automaticity.

The beauty of automaticity is two-fold. First, the action requires so little thought on your part that your brain is free to focus on other things, like that bike in the driveway, or the truck that’s pulling out behind you. Secondly, when your willpower or motivation starts to wane, the habit still sticks because it takes so little effort that it’s become reflexive. Further, if you fail to perform the action (take, for example, not wearing your seatbelt, or missing your workout), it just feels weird. Eventually, it takes more effort not to perform the task you’ve worked so hard to program into your mind and life.

I’ve broken down what I consider to be the four essential steps to habit formation. If you approach them in order, one step at a time, forming positive habits will be easier than you think.

Step #1 of habit formation is selection phase, where you choose the behavior and the context in which it will be performed. For example, if you’ve decided you need to incorporate more fruit into your diet, you make it part of your daily breakfast. If you want to make walking a part of your exercise routine, you leave your shoes beside your bed at night and head out every morning at 6:30. When you repeat the behavior in the same context – fruit for breakfast, walking at 6:30 - it’s more likely to stick.

Step #2 is the repetition phase, where you perform the chosen behavior linked to the appropriate context over a length of time. For some people, this might be as few as 66 days (again, let go of the 21-day notion) or it could be as long as nine months before automaticity kicks in. Once the behavior becomes automatic, it’s just a matter of keeping it going, especially when your lifestyle or routine changes. Missing the chosen behavior once in a while doesn’t seem to affect the overall process of habit-formation. So don’t give up on the action if your routine gets disrupted – which it inevitably will.  Just get right back on the habit horse.

Step #3 is the expansion phase, where you increase the intensity, time, or strength of the habit you’re forming. For example, say you’ve started walking (action) at 6:30 each morning (context) for 20 minutes. After a week, add a little bit to the time or intensity. Maybe you increase your 20 minutes to 25 or you add an uphill stretch to your walk. When you ramp up your time, pace, or intensity in small increments, you’ll hardly even notice that you’ve increased the effort needed. Do this for a week, then add on a little more. If it’s a strain, back it down to your prior level and work your way up again. The idea is to add micro-increases slowly over time. Trust me, the small wins will add up to big results.

Step 4 is the automaticity phase, where the habit has become so routine that you rarely even think about it – you just do it. At this point, you’ve achieved solid habit strength and the action has become a normal part of your life, requiring very little effort on your part. In case you’re wondering, stopping a habit is far more difficult than forming a habit. It’s hard to make a habit out of not doing something. If you’re trying to stop smoking or overeating or overdrinking, I applaud you. But you may want to try forming a new habit that slowly replaces the old one.

 A word of caution: variation is the enemy of automaticity. Even though many experts suggest that you “mix it up” to stave off the boredom of repetition, it’s actually the repetition – in context – that builds automaticity. So be wary of switching up the context in which you perform the action. Even if your schedule gets hectic or you’re traveling, you’re still likely to be able to find a piece of fruit for breakfast or take a walk at your usual time. And, as I said before, a miss or two won’t affect your overall habit formation, so don’t even try to tell yourself you might as well give it up if your routine gets thrown off.

            Let’s recap the process of habit formation:

  1. Choose a goal that you'd like to achieve. Make it count. If you don’t care about it, you’re not likely to stick with it.
  2. Select a simple daily action that will move you toward your goal.
  3. Decide when and where you will practice that action consistently. This provides the context for the action.
  4. Repeat the action each day.
  5. Expand the intensity, time, or effort in tiny increments.
  6. Keep going until you’ve achieved automaticity. Remember the 66-day rule and cut yourself some slack until it becomes effortless.
  7. You’ve formed a positive habit. Time to celebrate!

Want to spread hope? Help me get the word out by logging onto the Thunderclap link below. Sign in (free and easy), pick the social media platforms you use, and add your quote or use the ones I’ve pre-loaded. All the posts will blast out on April 10th, launch day for my new book The Hope-Driven Leader!

P.S. If you want to read the first chapter before you comment, download it on my homepage. Thanks a million!

Can Being Selfish Be Good for Your Career?


While most of us consider selfishness an unsavory trait, there are times that it’s absolutely critical to watch out for number one. Like in your career!

            If you want to stay happy and hopeful in your current position while you pave the way for an even better professional future it’s essential that you learn to be selfish. Not in a mean curmudgeonly kind of way – nobody likes that person – but in an appropriately self-protective manner. After all, if you’re constantly putting everyone else’s priorities above yours, not only will you fail to do your best work, but you may also unconsciously be sending the message that you’re incapable of being a strong leader.

            In a later post, I’ll address 10 Ways to Say No and Make It Feel Like Yes so you don’t give people the perception that you’re uncooperative and non-collaborative. But right now, let’s look at the key five reasons you need to develop a selfish streak.

1.     You know your priorities better than anyone. Granted, you’ve probably got a boss who dictates roles and assigns tasks, but you have the ultimate control of when and how you execute on those deliverables. If you let too many people get in the way of what you need to accomplish, you’re handing over your power and allowing them to decide what’s important and what’s not. Don’t cave when it counts.

2.     You need to protect your calendar. If you let other people determine how you should spend your time, your calendar will fill up faster than you can say time is money. While your colleagues may think you’re really nice (or a total pushover) for saying yes to every request that comes along, you will soon discover that your day or quarter has been used up on other people’s priorities while you haven’t been able to accomplish what’s important to you. Stick to your scheduling guns.

3.     You’ll teach others how to treat you. I helped launch the Dr. Phil Show and I must have heard him say, “You teach people how to treat you,” about a million times. And it’s so true. If you refuse (politely, of course) to give in to others’ demands when you’ve got your hands full, people will soon learn not to bother you with extraneous requests or time-wasting busywork. Nip those non-productive behaviors in the bud.

4.     You can develop new skills and grow your network. Assuming you want to continue to grow professionally, you need to focus on learning new skills and expanding your contact base. The best way to do that is to protect your time and energy so you can do a great job in your current role. Only then will you be in a position to request additional coaching or training, or even the funds to help you continue your education. Remember, the most valuable employees are the lifelong learners.

5.     You can reduce stress, improve health, and maintain your sanity. This may be the most important reason of all to be selfish at work. Even when things are going well, work can be emotionally and physically draining. Only by staying true to yourself - meaning that you hold your time, energy, and resources sacred – can you serve others at the highest level. And that includes serving you.

            So go forth and be selfish in work and life. You’ll be happier and healthier. If you have a favorite tip for being appropriately selfish in the workplace, comment below or send it to me at


Are You Settling For Second Best?


We often hear the term “settling” regarding romantic relationships. Did you settle for your significant other because you didn’t want to be alone? Did you settle because it was simply too frightening to go out and find someone new? Or did you settle because you didn’t want to put yourself under the microscope and see what you needed to fix?

            But settling can happen in any part of your life: work, family, health, finances. Not that you can control every event. Bad things really do happen to good people. But if you know there’s more you can do, have, or become and you don’t strive for it, then, perhaps, you deserve what you get it. Harsh, I know, but that’s the reality. Ask yourself if you have ever experienced any of these signals that you’re settling.

Seven Signals That You’re Settling

1.     You have a dream or goal stuck way in the back of your head, but you never seem to take any action toward it. Maybe it’s changing careers, starting a business, having a child, or running a marathon. It’s like an earworm, also known as stuck song syndrome or musical imagery repetition (and, no, I didn’t make up those terms), that catchy melody or unforgettable lyric that you can’t get out of your mind long after the music stops playing. You try to ignore it, but it’s always in the background, drumming that beat in your head and heart.

2.     You’re living the someday syndrome, keeping your goal in the later-on-in-life category. Guess what? You don’t know how long you have on this earth. Do you really want to wait around to see if you manage to squeeze in something you know in your heart of hearts is truly meaningful to you?

3.     You’ve let the green-eyed monster of envy and jealousy take up permanent residence in your gut. When you see other people succeeding, you find some way to attribute it to their education, money, nepotism or just dumb luck. You tell yourself that they have all the advantages that you don’t. Even if some or all of those beliefs are true, so what? By convincing yourself that if only you had all the great stuff those successful people do, you’re be successful, too, you’re letting yourself off the hook from facing the reality of your situation – whatever it is – and doing the work that will get you where you want to be.

4.     You’ve got a shrink-to-fit personality. You may have big dreams, but you tell yourself they’re just not realistic. Instead, it’s okay to keep plugging away at this safe, boring, little job. Or to stick with playing small rather than risk ruffling anyone else’s feathers –or worse, risk failing at something. You’re like those amusement park Whack-a-Moles: if you just stay safely underground, no one can ever smack you back down.

5.     You’re a substitution junkie. Rather than get your high by fulfilling your dreams, you become obsessed with food, alcohol, television, news, social media or other diversions. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a food and wine person of the first order, but I don’t kid myself that earthly pleasures (including TV and movies, two more of my favs) are any kind of substitute for purposeful work or meaningful relationships.

6.     You’re a perpetual blamer of others. If you can’t have what you really want, it’s somebody else’s fault. It’s your boss holding you back. Or the government, the job market, your childhood or spouse. You can find a million excuses outside yourself for not getting what you want, but you know that the only one to blame is you.

7.     You’re hope-starved. Rather than feeding on positive ideas and inspiring people, you let the negatives of the world – and there are plenty of them – become your constant diet. You tell yourself that you don’t have what it takes, you don’t know how to get ahead, you don’t have the right skills or certifications, you're too old, too young, too dumb, too smart, or too whatever. The truth is, you’ve let your positive vision of the future get buried under other people’s negative rubble. It’s time to start digging out.

Awareness that you’re settling for less than you deserve could be the kick in the rear end you need to start focusing on what you really want. And even if you don’t particularly feel like you’re settling, let’s see how the practice of mentally connecting our present to our future can help us realize our vision.

Libby’s new book is available on, and anywhere books are sold. Order your copy now!


Are You a Likeable Leader?

  • Do you lead by ordering or inspiring?
  • Do you 'walk your talk' or expect others to 'do as I say, not as I do?' 
  • Do you blend kindness with candor when providing feedback?

It’s easy to overlook the significance of likeability in the workplace, but research tells us that likeable leaders create more loyalty, engagement, and collaboration. 

So what makes a likeable leader? Depends who you ask, of course, but most human resource and leadership experts agree that it starts with self-awareness. Among the traits that likeable leaders have in common are humility and approachability; generosity of spirit; stability and sound judgment; the ability to connect emotionally; passion and a sense of purposefulness; and character. 

Ask yourself the following questions to see how you score as a Likeable Leader. Note your responses and the corresponding points using the following key:

·      Yep, I’ve got this.                                Score 3 points

·      Kinda sorta.                                        Score 2 points

·      I could do a LOT better.                      Score 1 point

1.     If you make a promise to someone in your group, do you keep it?

2.     Do you promote easy collaboration and open communication? 

3.     Are you trusted and respected by your team?

4.     Do you give feedback that is both candid and constructive, without belittling the receiver? 

5.     Do you share the credit with others when things go well?  

6.     Do you take the blame when things go wrong? 

7.     Do you consciously set a good examples through your words and actions? 

8.     Are you aware when your team members feel stressed or overloaded?

9.     Do you know your employees as people, and not just as professionals?

10.  Do you attempt to keep a level playing field among your team members, and avoid playing favorites unfairly?

11.  Do you show vulnerability when appropriate?

12.  Do you have a sense of humor, encouraging fun and laughter among your team?

Check below to get your Leadership Likeability score:

1-12     Barely Likeable Boss: Chances are you put your own needs before others, failing to give your teammates the encouragement and support they need to grow. Warm up your communication and make sure you treat people with respect and kindness.

13-24   Fair to Middling Manager: You’re doing a decent job of demonstrating care and kindness to others, but it still leaves a lot to be desire. Fine-tune your leadership likeability with deep listening, positive role modeling, and direct feedback.

24-36   Inspirational Leader: Bravo! You’re showing genuine care and concern for team members, an authentic desire to connect, and the ability to inspire others to grow and develop. Continue to help others as you build a culture of collaboration, trust, and respect.

Want to learn more strategies to engage your team, create a collaborative culture, and become a more likeable leader? Pre-order Libby’s new book on Amazon, and wherever you buy books.

Order your copy now!


Don’tcha Just Love Meetings? Yeah, Right...

One of the biggest complaints I hear from clients is that they have to attend too many meetings. It’s a totally fair gripe: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Time Use Survey (yep, they survey this stuff), American workers spend an average of 8.7 hours per week in meetings.

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And I know plenty of people who would argue that that number is way too low. So here are some timely tips for making your meetings more meaningful, productive, and, yes, even fun.

1.    Ask yourself if a meeting is the right way to get the job done. Would a focused work session be a better alternative? A brainstorming group? A conversation with one or two colleagues? If you’ve ruled out all the other ways to accomplish your goal, then go ahead – schedule your meeting.

2.    State the purpose of the meeting and back it up with a written agenda. All meetings should have a clear objective that’s easily measured by the meeting’s end, meaning you either achieved the goal (decision made, information gathered, etc.) or you didn’t. If you didn’t get what you wanted, schedule another meeting or find another way to get the desired result. But never go into a meeting winging it.

3.    Invite attendees selectively. It’s become a backwards sort of corporate status symbol to get invited to lots of meetings. When you’re the inviter, determine whether you really need a cast of thousands or if four or five people would accomplish more. At Amazon, Jeff Bezos has declared that no meeting should require more than two pizzas to feed all attendees. While that sounds like a breezy rule of thumb, there’s solid evidence that the more people invited to a meeting, the more productivity goes down. Think about those calendar invites before you send them.

4.    Watch the timing.  Just because a meeting is long, doesn’t mean it’s effective. Choose a timeframe that sends a “we mean business” message, like a 22-minute meeting. Or consider a 10-15 minute “standing meeting” or a “morning huddle” where everyone stays on their feet, literally, for the duration. Try an unusual start time like 9:19 am to get people’s attention. Then, start on time, resist the urge to backtrack to fill in late-comers (shame on them), and end on time, resolution or not. People will not only be more willing to attend your meetings, but they’ll come prepared.

5.     Set strict guidelines and enforce them consistently. Once you’ve stated the meeting’s purpose in a written agenda, invited the right people, and started the meeting on time, make sure you adhere to the objectives at hand, preferably three or less. If anything is off-topic, park it by writing it down on a “parking lot list” and assign ownership to someone to follow up at a later time. Consider parking your devices outside the conference room door, too.

6.    Have a little fun. Start your meetings with something unexpected once in a while: ask everyone to share a personal tidbit, bring some food, tell a joke, start with an icebreaker, give away some swag, or do a quick go-round about the upcoming weekend. Send a message that says while you mean business, you can still have a good time together!

Stay tuned for the launch of my new book, The Hope-Driven Leader: Harness the Power of Positivity at Work. You can pre-order it on Amazon now!

Servant Leadership...Literally

You’ve heard of servant leadership, but do you practice it? Check out the lengths to which these leaders at Abbott went to bring the concept to life.


No doubt you’ve heard the term servant leadership buzzing around your workplace. While the concept likely started as far back as 500 BC with Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu, others have popularized the notion in more recent times. Businessman Robert Greenleaf started the modern servant leadership movement in 1970 with his seminal essay which suggested that leaders should put others’ needs before their own quest for power or material gain. Pretty radical, right?

In my 17 years as an executive coach and leadership consultant, I’ve discovered how rare – and precious - it is to meet leaders who are as genuinely dedicated to their individual workers as they are to the organization. Or, for that matter, to their own climb up the corporate ladder.

I find myself constantly explaining that servant leadership is not only the right thing to do, but it’s also the smart thing to do. When we treat our team members with trust, respect, and compassion – in other words, like most of us want to be treated –that positive experience is often passed along directly to the end user. Zappos, Southwest Airlines and Ritz-Carlton are famous for taking care of staff the way they want them to care of customers. And it works.

But one leadership team blew me away with their commitment and creativity when it comes to servant leadership. I recently conducted a day-long strategy session with the Central Plains Sales Team for Abbott, a global medical device company. From our very first conversation, I could see the level of dedication. Led by Abbott VP of Sales Gray Fleming, the entire senior team was on the phone for every one of our calls in preparation for the interactive seminar. They were determined to make the day meaningful and memorable, and so was I.

As Gray told me, “In our organization, we try to make servant leadership as straightforward as possible: Lead from the back and remember to say thank you.  When the opportunity was realized that we could actually serve our teams, it was a no-brainer as there is no better way to demonstrate that thank you.  In my opinion, the easiest way to find these opportunities is to focus on your “role” in leadership versus your “title” in the corporation.” 

The event was a great success, with lively participation, free-flowing ideas, and solid next-step action plans. But it was what happened after the workshop that really drove home the concept of servant leadership. Gray and his senior team, comprised of Dan Stephens, Charlie Robins, Brent Temple, and Gail Carlock, planned a surprise awards banquet dinner cruise around Lake Michigan.

As the group of nearly 100 sales representatives walked up the gangplank and boarded the boat, they were greeted by the guys – their own supervisors – in waiters’ uniforms bearing trays of wine and champagne. And it wasn’t just for show. Gray and his leadership team waited on their team for the entire cocktail hour and on into dinner. It didn’t stop there: after handing out beautiful crystal awards and bottles of Veuve Clicquot in recognition of the years’ sales superstars, the gentlemen invited award winners to sign their waiter jackets with markers. A wearable wall of good wishes for future success.

While seeing these leaders literally serving was the cleverest demonstration of servant leadership I’ve ever seen, there are plenty of things you can do sans champagne or waiters’ jackets. See which of these expressions of servant leadership would feed your folks:

  • Recognize excellence. In between the big awards functions and formal recognition events, remember to cite people who’ve exceeded expectations. Celebrate even the small wins with flowers, books, or $5 Starbucks cards. Send a personal thank you email, copying the entire team for a job well done. Or do something really special, like Graham Weston, one of the founders of hosting company Rackspace, who used to give not only his parking space but the use of his personal vehicle to a standout employee every month.
  • Offer ongoing education. Nothing says “I value you” more than investing in someone’s growth and development. When time and budget allow, identify staff members to send to conferences, stipulating that they share takeaways with the rest of the team upon their return. Help people chart out their career paths, offering skills training and support to get them to the next level. Remember that life-long learners are the new gold standard for top talent.
  • Nurture your network. Make sure you’re giving back to the people who helped you get where you are today. Along with current employees who’ve had your back, reach out to former bosses, teachers, and coaches who have invested time and energy toward your success. A hand-written card, a friendly phone call, or a lunch invitation are easy ways to acknowledge that others have served you. After I gave a young staff member his first contract and encouraged him to buy the house he was considering, he called me every year for more than a decade on the anniversary of his closing date. Twenty years later, we’re still buddies.
  • Hold informal outings. While the company holiday party or annual retreat are great occasions to have on the calendar, don’t overlook the opportunity for more casual connections. Gather everyone for a Friday afternoon happy hour or invite them to your house for a backyard barbecue. Like Gray and his gang, wait on them hand and foot and they’ll know you really mean it when you talk about service.
  • Remember the small niceties. Finally, just like your mother told you when you were a kid – and Gray reiterated -  a simple please and thank you goes a long way. (Especially in email, where tone is notoriously absent.) As James Taylor sang, “Shower the people you love with love.” You betcha!




I’ve seen it happen again and again. A talented executive is brought into an organization to “shake things up,” only to discover that most people don’t want shaking up. They want to keep on doing exactly what they did the day before.

Here’s what happened to a former client I’ll call James. James was a manufacturing executive who was hired by a global engineering firm to overhaul their supply chain. He was thrilled, expecting the work to be an exciting challenge. What he didn’t expect was that people would be so resistant to change that they actually avoided getting to know him.

What James quickly realized was that he couldn’t just be a change manager, implementing efficiencies and making system updates. He had to be a change leader, creating a compelling vision of the future and helping colleagues connect the dots so they could see exactly where they fit into the picture.

James started his change leadership process with informal walk-around meetings, getting to know people and building their trust over time. Through constant communication and ongoing education, James helped his colleagues see not only where the company was headed, but also the opportunities that awaited them as individuals.It wasn’t an easy process and James would be the first to tell you that change didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen. Just eighteen months later, his supply chain overhaul completed, James was moved to another location so he work his magic there.

Here are some tips for all you change leaders:

  • Create emotional connections with formal and informal followers. Spend the time finding out what’s on people’s minds and what changes they feel are important. Once your coworkers know, like, and trust you, change gets a lot easier.
  • Change is not a project, it’s a mindset. While it's okay to acknowledge people’s doubts and insecurities, it’s your job as a change leader to role model that change is not a death sentence, it’s an opportunity for growth.
  • Be patient. Real change takes time and effort which can take a toll on those who are constantly beating the drum for new ideas. But hang in there, stay positive, solicit the support of like-minded people - and let everyone else catch up!

Are you an Inspirer or an Implementer?

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I have a friend who is a font of ingenious ideas, none of which will ever see the light of day. He's a wonderful guy and inspires a lot of people, but the truth is, he's more talk than action. A total dreamer.