The Myth Of 21 Days To Form A New Habit
Hundreds of books and thousands of online articles from the self-help industry have been perpetuating a myth for nearly sixty years: it only takes 21 days of effort to form or break a habit. After 21 days the change in habit becomes routine, automated and natural.
What was the science behind this erroneous belief that has made some self-help gurus multi-millionaires?
In the 50s, an American cosmetic surgeon, Maxwell Maltz, observed that his patients generally took 21 days of recovery time to become accustomed to their new face or to stop sensing a phantom limb after having an arm or leg amputated. Curious, Maltz pondered his personal behavior, noting that it would take him approximately 21 days to form a new habit.
Later, in the 60s, Maltz published the self-help book Psycho-Cybernetics: Updated and Expanded that would go on to sell over 30 million copies worldwide and paraphrased by new-age gurus for the next sixty years. In the book he furthered the applications of his observations – that patients needed 21 days to accept a change in their appearance – beyond recovery.
It birthed a mantra that propped up a million dollar self-help industry by offering a quick fix based on an incorrectly quoted sentence. Specifically, one sentence from this book has been quoted ad nauseam. One three-syllable word was removed, but that word makes all the difference.
“It requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.”
The word “minimum” was scraped and the idea morphed into the frustrating myth we all know; “it takes 21 days to form a new habit.”
Not so fast (no pun intended).
Actually, It Takes At Least…
Phillippa Lally, a medical researcher from the University College London, published a study that asked, “how long does it take for a habit to feel automatic?”
In other words, “how long does it take to form a new habit?”
She tasked 96 participants with choosing one new habit to either make or break over a 12 week period. Each day those participants were required to report if they kept their promise and how automatic the new behavior felt to them.
After 12 weeks the results were in.
On average it took 66 days for a new habit to feel automatic.
Though, some participants took as little as 18 days. Others took as long as 254 days.
For the all-or-nothing personality types, they noted that if you slip one day, that’s fine. The clock doesn’t restart. As long as you don’t continue indulging for a few more days.
So, rest assured, change is – and has always been – possible.
Not always as quickly as we demand in today’s gimme it now culture.
It’s like they say, “it’s more satisfying to achieve something that you’ve had to work for.”
Unless that too is a myth…