Using the Bi-Weekly Approach to Habit Formation

Standard operating procedure when trying to develop a long-lasting habit is to do it every day for a period of time (usually a month) until it becomes second nature. This seems obvious, right? I recently had a conversation with one of my coaching clients that made me question whether there might be another approach toward habit development -- something we ended up calling the biweekly focus.

What if you shifted your focus between two habits on an every-other-week schedule instead of focusing full-bore on one habit for a month or longer? In the context of our conversation, my client was talking about how she wanted to get back into playing the piano regularly while also working on her fitness. Conventional wisdom is for her to pick one of those, focus on it for a month or so, then move on to the next one. This can be frustrating for many people because even though it's fairly accepted that trying to do more than one habit at a time might be a great recipe for accomplishing nothing, some habits do not lend themselves to full focus for a long period of time. In this case, practicing the piano in a very intense and focused way for any longer than a week made her feel tired and less motivated to keep working at it. Likewise, when she focused on trying to be healthier and improving her fitness she felt other areas of her life falling by the wayside to the point where it was difficult to keep up with the fitness habit.

Instead, she started a pattern where for one week she would focus intensely on piano while just doing the bear minimum to keep her fitness habit moving forward (attending one spin class instead of three). The following week she would shift piano to the back burner (practicing for 30 minutes or less instead of the usual hour or more) while elevating the amount of time she spent on fitness. By alternating between "Piano Weeks" and "Fitness Weeks" she was able to cultivate two habits that mattered to her without getting burnt out on either one.

When might this biweekly approach toward tackling multiple habits work best? I think attempts at establishing smaller habits will generally benefit from the tried-and-true approach of focusing on it exclusively for a month until it starts to become second nature. However, if you're trying to establish a habit or routine that is mentally or physically taxing, it may be beneficial to think about developing it in a cycle that allows you a week of focus followed by a week of recovery.

This approach may also be beneficial for anyone who really struggles with only focusing on one thing at a time. While I don't think this is a solution to trying to do too much at once, I do think it'll allow people who are a little bit more impatient have a higher level of success accomplishing their habits than usual. For even greater success, using the biweekly approach with two habits that tax separate systems may be a good idea. In the piano/fitness example, my client was able to spend one week taxing her body while letting her mind rest and then switching to a mentally taxing week while her body rejuvenated. At the end of each week she was mentally and physically ready to shift gears into the other domain.

I'm always on the lookout for advice that seems overly simplified or heavy handed. Humans are incredibly complex creatures and the mental conditions behind our behaviors and attitudes should not be oversimplified when greater complexity will give us a more accurate picture of what's going on. Why should all habits be cultivated one at a time for around 30 days? Starting a flossing habit and a piano playing habit share similarities, but I would argue that they're different enough to warrant different approaches. 

If you've been struggling with a habit change I encourage you to try a one-week-on-one-week-off approach to developing it. At the very least, you'll learn that this doesn't work for you. At most, you have successfully begun cultivating a meaningful habit. 

If you've done something like this or are planning on giving it a try I'd love to hear about it in the comments. What habits did you pursue in tandem? How did it work for you?