This may come as a shock to many of you, but the guy who first said, “It takes 21 Days to form a new habit” didn’t really say that. Not exactly, anyway.
I’ll share some thoughts on what it takes to form a new habit in a sec. But first, as Paul Harvey would say, “and now, the rest of the story”.
The whole 21-days-to-a-new-habit myth was based on self-image work by plastic surgeon Dr. Maxwell Maltz back in the 1950s.
Dr. Maltz noticed that it took a patient about 21 days to get used to their cosmetic changes (say, a nose job or face lift) after surgery. In a similar way, it would take an amputee about 21 days to stop feeling that phantom limb all the time and become more used to their new situation.
Maltz thought that was interesting, and it happened routinely enough that it made him curious. He took a look at his own period of adjustment to change and formation of new habits and behaviors, and he discovered that it also took him about 21 days to form a new habit. So he documented his findings, and in 1960, published the results in a book called Psycho-Cybernetics.
Maltz wrote, “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.”
Read that quote carefully.
The book sold more than 30 million copies, and that one sentence led to a myth being born! Lots of self-help gurus (Zig Zigler, Brian Tracy, Tony Robbins, to name a few) grabbed onto his findings, and eventually shortened Maltz’s “a MINIMUM of ABOUT 21 Days” to “21 days!”
People could get their minds around 21 days. It was a short enough time frame that it was encouraging and inspiring – I can DO that! People responded to 21 days, and many DID find good results (and still do, I might add).
But people also got discouraged when, after 21 days, the new habit hadn’t jelled enough to become second nature.
As with most things, the total story and a reasonable expectation provide better perspective AND a better chance at a good result.
So how long DOES it take to form a new habit?
Let’s take a sec and look at the work of Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher at University College in London. She published a study in the European Journal of Social Psychology where she and her researchers focused on figuring this out for themselves.
They took 96 people, and for 12 weeks studied how they fared in creating new habits. Each person chose 1 new habit and would report daily as to how it was going and how natural (or not) the new habit felt. The new behaviors were fairly straightforward – drink a glass of water before dinner, exercise for 15 minutes daily, and the like.
Then after 12 weeks, each participant was evaluated on the process of introducing a new habit into their daily routines.
Lally found that, on average, it takes more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic.
That’s 66 days.
Which is not 21 days.
The length of time will, naturally, vary widely depending on the behavior that is changing, the person, and the circumstances.
In Lally’s study, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for the people in her study to form their new habits. I’d really like to be one of the 18-day people…
So, if you want to set your expectations realistically, it will most likely take you anywhere from 2 to 8 months for that new habit to really jell.
You might be tempted to say “Well, that’s discouraging. That’s bad news!”
But hold up!
That is NOT bad news! It’s good news for a couple of reasons.
1. You now have REALISTIC expectations
One of the requirements for getting a new habit to take root is for it to be reasonable, doable, realistic.
21 days MAY be realistic for you – it is for some folks.
But if it’s not, then you set yourself up for discouragement and, ultimately, failure if your expectation is 21 days.
If you expand your time expectation and are wrong BECAUSE IT TOOK LESS TIME FOR YOU – that’s awesome! Very motivating and encouraging.
Unrealistic expectations are not your friend.
2. New Habits are meant to be for a lifetime, so…..
If you want your new habit to last a lifetime – and any new behavior we choose to introduce is generally something that we want to do from now on – you have to practice it every day.
The longer you do something, the more entrenched it becomes in your life. So what if you can’t “get it down” in 21 days? You’re gonna do it the rest of your life, right? So don’t get all flustered by this news about the 21 day thing! Just take it a day at a time, and keep doing it. Which is what you have to tell yourself at the end of 21 days anyway.
3. 21 DAYS of a new habit is an awesome start and great benchmark
There are some fabulous 21 Day exercise, positive thinking, healthy eating, and lifestyle change programs out there. They provide fantastic results and are worth the time, effort, and personal investment to follow.
I’ll be sharing some of them with you soon.
After 21 days, you’ll also have a better feel for how serious you are about making this change in your life. If it’s working for you and you believe it’s worth the effort, then keep on with it. If it isn’t what you expected or you aren’t ready for this yet, then you can make that decision at that point.
You can use 21 Days as your initial goal. Commit to that, and after you’ve completed those 21 days, make yourself another goal to achieve. Breaking lifelong goals down into smaller, manageable chunks is the way to go.
4. You don’t have to be perfect (HOORAY!!)
Another thing that Lally discovered was that you don’t have to be PERFECT in your quest to form a new habit. When the people in her study messed up a time or two in their dedication to practicing the new behaviors, it didn’t really change the overall result.
We tend to get discoursed when we skip a day or two of exercise or healthy eating. Just remember that life – and developing healthy habits – is a process, not a final destination.
Maybe you’ve heard of the 80/20 Rule. Most often, in fitness circles, that refers to the fact that 80% of good health and fitness is about proper nutrition, and only 20% is related to exercise. (I wish those were reversed…)
But you can also use the 80/20 Rule for any goal. 80% of the time, put all your efforts into staying true to that goal, but cut yourself some slack on the other 20%.
Because LIFE, that’s why! We can’t be perfect, but we can get our minds (and our determination) around doing something hard 80% of the time.
Except for marriage. You need to be committed to your marriage 100% of the time. But I digress…
Focus on progress rather than perfection.
And when you do mess up, act like a scientist.
Figure out WHY you didn’t exercise or why you ate the plate of cookies or why you smoked the cigarette, and then focus on fixing the problem that got in the way.
Your goal wasn’t the problem.
The thing that interfered with your goal is the problem. So troubleshoot THAT rather than quit.
It’s a process.
Dr. Jason Selk offered some fantastic information and advice about what it DOES take to form a new habit:
(Dr. Jason Selk is one of the premier performance coaches in the United States, with dozens of professional athletes and Fortune 500 executives as his clients.)
Selk says there are 3 PHASES of new habit formation:
- THE HONEYMOON
We like the honeymoon phase. It’s easy and it feels fabulous. It’s when you are excited and everything feels easy and fun and full of possibilities. Nothing will get in your way!
The honeymoon phase is usually the result of something inspiring happening – attending a highly motivational conference, reading a book that you really connect with, seeing something on the internet or TV that fuels your optimism and makes you want to do that thing.
However, we all know that that level of excitement and enthusiasm can’t last forever…
So at some point we’ll hit Phase 2.
- THE FIGHT-THRU
Reality sets in during the fight-thru phase. You start to struggle with your follow-through.
Even your “want to” may take a hit.
It gets HARD.
We are not fans of “hard”. Those old (easy) habits seem so attractive. We’re tired of making the effort and find excuses not to.
The secret, according to Dr. Selk, is to win 2 or 3 “fight thrus” as you push through the struggle. This is crucial to succeeding.
To successfully fight thru, use the following techniques:
Acknowledge that you are in the FIGHT THRU stage, and tell yourself that you need to win a few of these moments in order to move past it. When you push thru and get past it this time, it will make it easier to do it the next time (there will be a next time. Sorry…) If you give in this time, it makes it easier to give in the next time.
So, recognize that you are in a phase of this new habit formation thing, that it is normal to feel this way, and that you aren’t a failure!
b) ASK 2 QUESTIONS of yourself
“How will I feel if I do this?” and “How will I feel if I don’t do this?”
Yes, I’m telling you to bring your emotions into this fight!
Let yourself feel that positive sense of accomplishment you’ll experience if you push through, and also the negative feelings and discouragement of NOT fighting through.
c) LIFE PROJECTION
If steps a) and b) didn’t get you over the hump, then imagine in great detail what your life will look like in 5 years if you do NOT make this change. Be honest with yourself and allow yourself to envision where you’ll be in 5 years if you continue to give in and give up when it gets hard.
- SECOND NATURE
So to recap, Phase 1 is the Honeymoon Phase, Phase 2 is the Push Thru Phase, and this brings us to Phase 3 – Second Nature.
This is where we wish we’d all be after 21 days of effort…
We want it to stop being so hard to keep the new habit going. We really want the new behavior to feel like, well, SECOND NATURE.
Second nature phase is when you feel you’re “in the groove” with this new behavior.
It feels pretty good! You did it!
But, hang on a sec.
As life tends to do, there are a few monsters that try to come in and ruin things.
Once you are in “second nature”, the following interruptions will try to come in and toss you back into FIGHT THRU:
- The DISCOURAGEMENT Monster
The Discouragement Monster has you thinking, “This isn’t working, and there’s nothing I can do… I might as well not even try… “
We’ve all been there. Don’t let this Monster fool you with his lies!
- The DISRUPTION OF SUCCESS Monster
We get out of our routine and that makes staying the course more difficult. Things like vacation, illness, weekends, visitors. Life will happen and we can fall off the track (so to speak). Just get back on. Don’t quit.
3. The SEDUCTION OF SUCCESS Monster
“Look at me and my success!”
“I did this awesome thing!”
“Look at the results of my awesomeness!”
We did the thing! But then we get overconfident and lazy… Plus people think you brag a bit too much. We think we’re all that, so we don’t focus as much attention on staying the course.
After all, we’ve got this, right??
If one of these monsters grabs you and tosses you back to the FIGHT THRU stage, don’t panic.
There’s a way back to Second Nature. And I think you know what it is.
You’re in the Fight Thru stage again, so – FIGHT THRU!
Winning 2 or 3 FIGHT THRUs will bring you back to SECOND NATURE.
So, when you get knocked back to Fight Thru by one of the Interruption Monsters, DON’T GIVE UP!
Bring your focus back to one day at a time, at least until you get past the rough patch.
You and I and everyone else really wishes that new, positive habits would be as simple for us as breathing. But we know they aren’t. We KNOW they take effort, consistent effort, for as long as you want to reap their benefits.
Achieving great things involves sacrifice. It involves doing things that others can’t or won’t do. Over and over again. Because it’s worth it to reach those goals and enjoy the benefits those new actions bring to your life.
GREAT HABITS ARE FORMED DAILY, one decision at a time, compounded over days, weeks, months, years.
Good habits require consistent commitment and effort.
I wish I could tell you it was easy or that you’d have it down pat after 21 days.
But I want you to succeed, and so I can’t say those things and just stop there. You need the rest of the story, for when it gets hard and you feel like quitting.
What I can say is that doing something for 21 days is an awesome start to a new, better way of living. 21 Days of practicing a new behavior will put you well on the road to making it a permanent part of your life.
What I can also say is that if you stick to it, and work through the hard days, show up even when you don’t want to, and pick yourself up and get back on track when you fall off – you will accomplish those goals!
Whether it took you 21 days or 66 days or 365 days or maybe you’re still working on it.
You can do hard things.