How long does it take to form a new habit is a question I’ve been curious about recently so I thought I’d do a little research and what I’ve discovered is, that asking how long it takes to form a new habit, is a little like asking how long is a piece of string (which in the UK is a question used to indicate that something cannot be given a finite measurement)?
For a longtime I’d believed the answer was 21 days and that might be correct if all you want to do is drink a glass of water after breakfast, but anything harder is likely to take longer to become a really strong habit.
Now this might be slightly disappointing to discover, because the 21 day habit idea is very alluring, it makes habit change seem very doable. However I’m sure in reality, you know new habits rarely stick after just 21 days.
We will talk more about how long it takes to form a new habit in a moment, but first lets explore how the ubiquitous 21 day habit myth began.
Where did the 21 Day Habit Myth Start?
Have you read a book called Psycho-Cybernetics? If you’ve been around the personal development world for a while, it’s likely you have.
It was written in the 1960’s by a guy called Dr Maxwell Maltz who defined Psycho-Cybernetics “as steering your mind to a productive, useful goal so you can reach the greatest port in the world, peace of mind.”
Dr Maltz was a plastic surgeon, he observed the powerful effect a persons self image had on his capacity for happiness and success. In his book he pointed out that his patients would take about 21 days to get used to seeing their new face. Similarly, when a patient had an arm or a leg amputated, Maltz noticed the patient would sense a phantom limb for about 21 days before adjusting to the new situation.
Maltz wrote in his book –
“It usually requires a minimum of about 21 days to effect any perceptible change in a mental image. Following plastic surgery it takes about 21 days for the average patient to get used to his new face. When an arm or leg is amputated the “phantom limb” persists for about 21 days. 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.”
His book went on to sell more than 30 million copies, influencing many of the big named self help gurus including Zig Ziglar, Brian Tracy and Tony Robbins.
So you can see why as more people shared Maltz’s findings, like a chinese whisper, his observation morphed into the idea that it takes 21 days to form a new habit.
But Dr Maltz never made any statement about the formation of new habits. He was referring to the time it ‘tended’ to take a patient to adapt to a physical change, which is very different to a behavioural change.
How Long Does it Take to Form a New Habit?
So here’s the information you’ve been waiting for.
“it’s unwise to attempt to assign a number to this process. The duration of habit formation is likely to differ depending on who you are and what you are trying to do. As long as you continue doing your new healthy behaviour consistently in a given situation, a habit will form.”
Their research asked 96 volunteers to choose a health-promoting dietary or activity (e.g. drinking a glass of water) in response to a once-daily cue (e.g. after breakfast), and report daily on the automaticity (the notion of acting without thinking) of the behaviour over a period of 84 days (12 weeks).
The point at which automaticity was measured to be highest is the point they suggest a habit is formed. Within their sample group they noticed quite large differences in how quickly automaticity reached its peak.
People who resolved to drink a glass of water after breakfast were up to maximum automaticity after about 20 days, while those trying to eat a piece of fruit with lunch took at least twice as long to turn it into a habit.
Developing an exercise habit proved most tricky with “50 sit-ups after morning coffee,” still not a habit after 84 days for one participant. “Walking for 10 minutes after breakfast,” though, was turned into a habit after 50 days for another participant.
They believe the variation is because simple behaviours (such as drinking a glass of water) are easier to develop, because they require less physical and mental effort than more complex behaviours (e.g. doing 50 sit-ups), which makes sense.
Plus we’re all different, people differ in how quickly they can form habits, and how strong those habits can become.
Another interesting finding was that missing out a day did not affect the habit formation process, which means you don’t have to beat yourself up if you slip up now and again.
The bottom line is there are lots of variables, therefore no set rules. The 66 day number is just a guide.
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