The Myth of the 21 Day Habit

The headline screamed “21 days to a new you!” Another one said “Change your habits, change your life – the 21-day fix.” A variation on the theme is “The 30-day solution – develop healthier eating habits in just 30 days.” No matter what they say exactly, they all preach the that you can develop a new habit in 21 days or 30 days and get remarkable results. Just look at Amazon, Pinterest, or do a google search and you will find the 21 or 30-day quick fix is very, very popular. Where did this idea come from?

Well it was introduced by a Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon, in his book Psycho-Cybernetics published in 1960. When Dr. Maltz performed an operation, like amputating an arm or leg, the patients would take around 21 days to cease feeling the phantom sensations in the amputated limb. He also noticed that it took him about 21 days to form a new habit. His book – Psycho-Cybernetics – was a blockbuster hit and soon many “self-help” gurus started to preach that it takes 21 days to form a habit. Others said it takes 30 days to get the habit established. There is something very appealing about the 21 or 30-day habit myth. It is short, fast, and easy to do. But a myth is just what it is -- a myth that is not based on good scientific research. Some habits may take about 21 or 30 days to establish and others may take a shorter or longer period of time. Twenty-one days is not a magic number.

So what does the research tell us about habit formation? The most cited study is the one done by Phillippa Lally and her team at the University of London published online in 2009 in the European Journal of Social Psychology. Ninety-six volunteers chose an eating, drinking or activity behavior to carry out daily in the same context (e.g., after breakfast). The average time it took to perform the behavior consistently was 66 days with a range of 18 to 254 days. Simple habits might take a short time to develop. But most habits take at least 2 months and even longer to become an automatic part of your lifestyle. And the researchers found another interesting result. If you missed a day or two it did not affect the process of forming a habit. So if you miss doing your new habit occasionally, it is not the end of the world and is not a reason to stop trying. If you miss a day, just get up, dust yourself off, and keep plugging along the road to new habit development.

The key ideas you can gather from all this is that 1) habit formation is not a one time, short term event but an ongoing process that takes time; 2) even if you occasionally mess up, it is not the end of the world; and 3) consistently repeating a behavior over time leads to it becoming automatic –easier and easier to do without your conscious awareness. Healthy new habits do take some work to develop but the payoff in terms of living a healthier lifestyle is immeasurable.
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