Does it Take 21 Days to Form a Habit?

Wouldn’t it be great to get rid of any unwanted habits and replace them with your desired ways of doing things like quit smoking?

So can you form a new habit in 21 days? The simple answer is: No. The 21-day habit formation is a myth formed due to a misinterpretation of a work on self-image by Dr. Maxwell Maltz. Another study has shown the duration to form a habit varies from 18-254 days, on average 66.

Unfortunately, the 21-day myth is widely believed and people get disappointed when they try and it doesn’t work. So what can you do instead and is there a better answer to habit building and the duration of breaking or forming a desired behaviour?

How long does it really take to create new a habit?

3 weeks to change your life one habit at a time? That would just be too good to be true. 21 days is a nice amount of days, short enough to be achievable and long enough to be believable. But the truth is different. The University College of London conducted a study with 96 people over 12 weeks and found out that a new habit forms in 18-254 days or on average 66 days. So now some the number 66 seems to slowly replace 21 and if just enough people repeat it one way I will rewrite this article about why a 66-day myth exists. 66 is an average, the real time it takes depends on 2 important factors:

  1. The type of person you are – Everyone is different and reacts differently to failure. When it comes to changing a habit the biggest threat is the discouragement of slipping. Getting into a “I can never make it” mood after not achieving your desired goal once is undoubtedly the most dangerous enemy to deal with.
  2. The type of habit you want to learn/unlearn – The second important factor is the habit itself. If it is one of these life-changing events like quit smoking or eating healthier which are much more difficult to achieve I found it most helpful to follow the advice of the 3-Phase approach I describe further down: Imagine yourself in 5 years if you stick to the new way of doing things. What impact does it have on the way you look or your finance? I eventually managed to quit smoking and lost 20kg by picturing my future very vividly with my new habits in place.

A better and phased approach to habit formation

If you think back about what you would really describe as a habit, is there anything that you do not really like but you do it anyway? And doesn’t this habit require constant work to be maintained? For me, I can confirm that a habit is not something that sticks with you forever just because you do it already for a long time. We tend to avoid things that are unpleasant no matter how long we do them already. So isn’t there a better way of dealing with unwanted behaviour and desired habits? After searching for a while I came across a phased approach by Tom Bartow which I think comes much closer to reality. He divided the process of forming a new habit into 3 phases:

  1. The Honeymoon
  2. The fight through
  3. Second nature

The first phase is what he describes as the Honeymoon. The characteristics of a honeymoon are that they are extremely pleasant but always end (too soon). The same usually happens when to work on a new habit. You finally decided to change your life and start with high expectations and a great attitude and you wonder why you didn’t start earlier since it all seems to easy. I still remember these phases when I quit smoking many many years ago. The first 2 days were like always full of hope but unfortunately ended too soon – with failure.

The second phase is what Tom calls the fight through. Your old habits don’t give up that easily. They take every opportunity they can get to lure you back to your old way of living. This is the critical phase. If you manage to fight through these temptations and stick to your original plan you might make it to phase 3. To do this Tom recommends 3 techniques:

  1. Recognize – Acknowledge that you are about to fail and make it crystal clear to yourself that if you pull through this it will get easier.
  2. Ask 2 questions – Use emotions by asking yourself what you will feel if you give up or continue.
  3. Life projection – Imagine yourself in the future if you stick to your plan, how will your life look like in 5 years

Tom named the final phase second nature. When a new behavior becomes second nature does not mean you made it and the new habit will stick with you automatically. The following 3 interruptions threaten your new lifestyle on a regular basis: 1. You lose faith by slipping 2. Your daily routine gets interrupted so your new habit doesn’t fit in (illness, vacation tec.) 3. You feel overconfident and think you can get back at any time so no harm in slipping back for a while.

I found this approach very reasonable and easier to follow than just relying on a magical number of days. Tom. Bartow has an affordable book (And audio CD, I always like to listen to things like this while driving) which you can find (even for free) here on Amazon.

What is the best way to break a habit?

Breaking an old habit and forming a new one is very closely related. Usually, when you try to get rid of an unwanted behavior the best approach is actually to replace it with a better habit. If you want to stop eating junk food you will not just stop eating but develop a healthy diet that is a tasty substitute for burgers & Co. I did that when I followed the advice from the famous “4-hour body” book by Tim Ferris and lost 20kg. I just replaced my way of eating and preparing meals with a delicious low-carb version of it and it worked (If you are interested in how that works here is the link from Amazon). Even people who quit smoking do something like chewing gum, putting a toothpick in their mouth or committing to exercise. So instead of focusing on getting rid of an unwanted habit is to think about a good habit to replace it with.

Related questions

What is the 21/90 rule? This rule is basically built on the 21-day habit myth and claims that if you do something for 21 days it becomes a habit and if you continue doing it for another 90 days it is a change in your lifestyle. Since we established already that the 21-day habit forming is not true so isn’t this rule. But if you just add those numbers and state that after 111 days doing the same thing it is likely to become a habit that is much closer to reality.

Where did the 21-day habit formation myth come from? In the 1950s Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon noticed that it took about 21 days for a patient to get used to a new nose or dealing with the sense of a phantom limb. He then observed his own behavioral change found that he could change a habit in a MINIMUM of 21 days. He repeated that sentence in one of his best selling books and over time the word minimum was omitted and th magic 21-day habit myth was born.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This