Many of us have heard that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. Three weeks of conscious effort…no problem! Right? Well, not exactly. If this were true, all of us would be in better shape…financially, mentally and physically!
Interested in the origin of this myth? Learn more here.
Here’s the truth. A research study published by Phillippa Lalley in the European Journal of Social Psychology showed, depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit. The average time for a new behavior to become automatic was found to be 66 days.
What can we learn from this study? Firstly, set reasonable expectations for the time it will take to establish a new pattern or habit. Otherwise, you’re setting yourself up for failure and more stress. After all, most of us don’t block enough time to run a report or an errand, let alone the time it takes to make positive, long-lasting behavioral changes.
Secondly, don’t stop trying if you slip up a bit – persist in your efforts to achieve success. As I often say, Go for the Gray! Black and white, all or nothing, on-off thinking will have you throwing in the towel long before the match is over. Accept you may have setbacks. Remember, acceptance doesn’t mean you don’t want to get better, it just means you stop using your energy to tear yourself down following a mishap.
Need proof perfection isn’t required? Lally’s research showed that “missing one opportunity to perform the behavior did not materially affect the habit formation process.” In other words, you don’t have to be 100% perfect to successfully adopt a new behavior.
There are other ways to ease the process as well. Commit to one change at a time.For example, if you choose to stop the annoying habit of finishing others’ sentences, master these moments before taking on another challenge. Be bold and announce your behavior change to co-workers and family. Ask them to call you out to up your awareness and accountability.
Also, if you’re trying to give up a habit that no longer serves you, find a different, more productive behavior to replace it, to fill the void left by giving something up. Still randomly checking emails rather than chunking blocks of time to accomplish high-priority tasks? When you find yourself jonesing for your in-box, instead, drink a glass of water, stretch for half a minute or silently repeat a mantra. Statements I use include “back to work” or “first things first” which help me refocus and regain control.
True confession: Over the holidays and especially late afternoon, I found myself indulging in tasty treats loaded with carbs, sugar and/or fat. This left me lethargic and less likely to exercise which left me more likely to grab a glass of wine early evening. Having maintained a 50-lb. weight loss for years, I knew I was sabotaging hard-earned, healthier habits. Maya Angelou may say “when we know better, we do better” but we all know this isn’t always the case.
What’s my point? I’m following my own advice and setting realistic expectations, cutting myself slack for speed bumps encountered, focusing on one behavior at a time and substituting afternoon chocolate for spiced tea.
What is it you’d like to change? Walking for 10 minutes a day? Showing up at activities with potential to advance your position? Setting aside time every week or month to nurture a relationship? Saying “no” to activities that leave you feeling depleted or unsatisfied? Letting go of what you can’t control? Whatever improvement you want to adopt, be easy enough on yourself to allow for mistakes, but tough enough on yourself to acquire what you desire!
* The 21-day idea originated in the 1950’s from a plastic surgeon named Maxwell Maltz, who noticed that after he performed an operation, it would take his patients about 21 days to get used to seeing their new face. Or if a patient had an arm or leg amputated, it would take around 21 days for the person to stop sensing a phantom limb and adjust to the absence of the appendage.
Maltz then started thinking about his own adjustment period to changes and new behaviors, and saw that it also took him about 21 days to form a new habit. He wrote about these observations in his 1960 book, Psycho-Cybernetics, which went on to sell more than 30 million copies! In his book, he included the quote: “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.”
The ideas in Maltz’s book went on to influence several other self-help “gurus,” including Tony Robbins and Zig Ziglar, over the next few decades. But as often happens with information relayed among large numbers of people over long periods of time, the original idea went from adaptation to change taking “a minimum of 21 days,” to “It takes 21 days to form a new habit.” Back To Article.