Can You Really Form a New Habit in Just 21 Days?

Jennifer Geer

Chances are it will take a little longer. But don't let that stop you from trying.

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

Making a new habit that lasts is hard work. Everyone is looking for a life hack or a quick fix to make it easier. But, the hard truth is, changing life habits takes time.

You may have heard of the common advice that anyone can change their behavior in a mere 21 days. Three short weeks of performing a new action, and just like magic, you are transformed.

Countless apps and self-help gurus have spouted the wisdom of the 21-day habit. But is this true? Can you make a habit automatic in just 21 days? The answer, as it turns out, is a bit more complicated.

Where did the 21-day habit idea originate?

The widely accepted 21-day habit theory has been around for a while. The idea came from the plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz. In the 1950s, he noticed that it took his patients about 21 days to get used to their new looks. He examined his own behavior and determined it also took him about 21 days to form a new habit. And with that, he was convinced, three weeks is the amount of time you need to change behavior.

In 1960, Maltz published his book, Psycho-Cybernetics, A New Way to Get More Living Out of Life, in which he stated the following. “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.”

And that was all it took to get the public’s attention on forming new habits. The 1960s was the decade where psychology became a part of pop culture. Self-help experts simplified the message of the 21 days minimum and turned it into 21 days total.

This caught the public’s eye. The 21-day habit-forming myth was born, and it’s still widely referenced today.

It’s compelling to think you can make positive changes in three short weeks. And in some cases, it may be possible. But stating that 21 days is all you need to change a bad habit can lead to disappointment. It’s easy to feel like a failure when it sounds so easy to transform, but you find you can’t get there in the allotted amount of time.

How long do habits take to become automatic?

It depends on the habit. I would imagine if I decided the new habit I wanted to make automatic was eating a cookie for dessert every night, I would not need 21 days to get hooked on it. Conversely, if I want to eliminate sugar from my diet, I know I would struggle with that one for much longer than 21 days.

And this is what the research has shown us. There is not a magic number of days you need to form a new habit. How long it takes to make a habit automatic for you depends on how tough the new habit is to maintain.

In 2009, researchers from the University College of London studied habit-forming in 96 people over 12 weeks. The study, conducted by Phillippa Lally and her colleagues, concluded that the average time it takes to form a new habit is around 66 days. The times varied from 18 days to up to 254.

The good news from the study is that missing a day of the new habit did not affect the habit-forming process. The takeaway here is that you can expect difficult life changes to take much longer to become automatic than 21 days. But if you have a bad day in the middle of it, don’t let it throw you off track. One botched day won’t have a lasting effect on how long it takes you to complete your goal.

What is takes for habit-forming

It’s not a one size fits all magic number. How long it takes you to form a new habit depends on the difficulty of the habit, and on you. Your motivation, your willpower, your circumstances, will all have an effect.

According to the New York Times business writer, Charles Duhigg, every habit has a three-part process. His 2012 book, The Power of Habit explores the science of habit-forming. Duhigg believes that habits must have a trigger, a routine, and a reward to become automatic behavior.

When a habit becomes automatic, your brain goes into sleep mode while performing it. This is how you can drive through traffic while listening to podcasts. You don’t have to be mentally aware of the process once it becomes automatic.

Duhigg stated that 40% of our daily lives are not made up of decisions, but of habits. Once you realize the importance of habits and begin to make positive changes, it becomes easier and easier. He found that habits can be contagious, and making a small change, like eating an apple every day leads people to adopt other healthy lifestyle factors.

Photo by Hello I’m Nik 🇬🇧 on Unsplash

Why you shouldn’t be discouraged

It may seem disheartening to think the 21-day rule is not realistic, at least for difficult changes that make a difference in your life. But don’t let it discourage you. You should feel hopeful because all this research shows that you really can make changes. It’s not going to be an exact formula.

The science shows us that it’s possible to make a new habit automatic in your life. It’s probably going to take longer than three weeks. And if you have an off day, don’t beat yourself up. You can start again the next day knowing that you have not derailed your plans.

Think of the task of forming your new habit as a process. It’s a journey to get there, and you’re going to have setbacks along the way. It may take three weeks. It may take as long as eight months. But it’s not going to happen at all if you don’t get started. Today can be your day one.

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Jennifer covers lifestyle content and local news for the Chicago area.

Chicago, IL

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