Is it actually true that we can form a new habit in just 21 days?
Everyone knows about the “power of habit.” Whatever we do or think, is dominated by the firing of our brain synapses between neurons (brain cells) that “lead” communication within the brain. When a behavior, action or any pattern repeats continuously, a network of neurons created on the specific (or thought or action patterns).
As a result, these firings make the behaviors seem “natural”. For example, the move-set of morning awakening (eg. tooth brushing-coffee-cigarette), is practically instinctive, automatic. One action triggers the next.
Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon, in the 1950s began to observe a strange pattern among his patients. When he would perform an operation – like a nose job, for example – he found that they needed about 21 days to get used to seeing their new face. Similarly, when a patient had an arm or a leg amputated, Maltz noticed that the patient would sense a phantom limb for about 21 days before adjusting to the new situation.
These observations led Maltz to think about his own period to adapt to changes and new behaviors, and he noticed that it also took himself about 21 days to create a new habit. Maltz wrote about these experiences and said “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.”
At 1960, Maltz published this quote and other thoughts on the behavior change in his book Psycho-Cybernetics. The book went on to become blockbuster best-seller, selling over 30 million copies.
At the following decades, through various self-help “gurus”, the people started to forget that Maltz said “a minimum of about 21 days” and shortened it to “It takes 21 days to form a new habit.”
So, what is the answer?
How Long Does it Take to Develop a New Habit?
Phillippa Lally is a health psychology researcher at University College London. In a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Lally and her research team decided to figure out just how long it actually takes to form a habit.
The study examined the habits of 96 people over a 12-week period. Each person chose one new habit for the 12 weeks and reported each day on whether or not they did the behavior and how automatic the behavior felt.
Some people chose simple habits like drinking a bottle of water with lunch. Others chose more difficult tasks like running for 15 minutes before dinner or do 50 sit-ups after the morning coffee. At the end of the 12 weeks, the researchers analyzed the data to determine how long it took each person to go from starting a new behavior to automatically doing it.
The answer was that, on average, it takes more than two months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact. And how long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances. In Lally’s study, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit.*
In other words, if you want to create a new behavior, it will probably take you from two months to eight months
Another interesting point that researchers found, is that not performing the behavior always, ie if lost some days, do not substantially affect the process of habit formation.
How to Manage the Formation of New Habits
Let’s see how to handle the issue of forming new habits, to not get discouraged:
First, there is no reason to give up if you try to do something new and see that it doesn’t become a habit within the first weeks. As mentioned, supposedly gets more. Prefer the slow and long path and focus on repetition.
Second, it’s not necessary to be perfect. Making a mistake or missing 2-3 days has no measurable impact on long-term results.
Third, prefer longer timeframes. Developing new habits is a process, not an event. You should like the whole process and embrace it. this will help you to commit yourself making small incremental improvements.
In conclusion, if a behavior is repeated often enough and for a long time, these neural pathways will increasingly grow and form your new habit! The human brain is a very adaptive “machine”. All brains are different, and the formation of new habits based on aspects of the experience and personality of the individual.
*Even though the study only ran for 12 weeks, the researchers were able to use the data to estimate the longer timelines (like 254 days) to form habits.