What’s your New Year’s Resolution: How long does it take to build a new habit?


This is the time of year when most everyone is making New Year’s resolutions.  We’ve all made them.  And, I bet most of us have been resolved that this was the year we would actually keep them!  If you’ve spent much time at a gym in January, you’ve witnessed some of those resolution makers firsthand. But, stick around long enough and by February (or maybe even earlier) the gym is back to its regular pace.

So what happens?  Maybe keeping New Year’s resolutions have something to do with how hard it is to establish a new habit! 

What does this have to do with fundraising?  Good development work in large part is the result of good discipline and a commitment to best practices.  Nurturing good fundraising habits, like routinely picking up the phone to thank a donor, checking on the status of a development committee member’s assignments or thanking a physician for his or her referral to the development office and giving him or her an update, are critical to ensuring successful programs.

There’s been a lot of research into what it takes to build new habits.  The results are worth taking a look at because they offer some interesting insights into how we may want to consider conducting our work.

Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher at the University College of London, is one of the psychologists who set out to figure out how long it takes to form a new habit [1]. Of course, forming a new habit can vary depending on the difficulty of the task, the person and the circumstances.  Running for 30 minutes before dinner can take much more discipline, commitment and practice than drinking a glass of water with each meal.  But, in general according to Dr. Lally, it takes more than two months to firmly establish a new habit!  It may even take up eight months to establish that new behavior in your work or personal life.  

Now, before you give up, take heart.  You don’t have to be perfect in order to build that new behavior.  Dr. Lally found that making a mistake now and then has no measurable difference on establishing a long-term new habit.  There’s a catch though!

It is important to establish a strategy for quickly getting back on track and staying with it.  You will also benefit from some inspiration from others.  Most important, its important to commit to a longer timeline and staying with the process over the long haul.  As Dr. Lally says, you have to embrace the process and a longer timeline.  When building new habits, it is better to take small incremental steps to improvement rather than expecting yourself to be perfect all at once.

So, what’s the relevance to fundraising?  Lots!

I recently asked the development officers participating in a staff retreat to think about just three new habits that would be beneficial to their work as we elevate the institution’s philanthropic culture and build new donor relationships.  Everyone was asked to think for several days about his or her unique role in building new donor relationships.  Then, each person charged with identifying three daily habits that would contribute to their success, as a person and as a group.  

Their answers were great.  They reflected a high degree of self-awareness and appreciation for everyone’s role in the process. Some choose to focus on how to build partnerships within the hospital that will elevate the philanthropic culture and help build donor relationships. Others choose to establish very tactical daily habits with respect to donor pipeline analysis and development.    

The staff shared their habits as a group and made a commitment to the long process.  They also created a strategy for keeping everyone on track.  We’ll revisit these new habits on a regular basis and track the group’s progress and performance against goals.

The only way to create new habits is to start with day one.  The first step is the hardest!  

As you begin your work in 2016, with the promise and opportunity of a strong philanthropic year, we hope you will take the first step in creating new healthy development habits, challenge your development colleagues to commit with you, provide inspiration to each other, and focus on doing the work over the long haul.

Good luck and Happy New Year!  

[1] European Journal of Social Psychology, How are habits formed:  Modelling habit formation in the real world, Phillippa Lally, July 16, 2009.