21-Day Habit Training Myth
If you google “21 day challenge“, then it’s astonishing to see how many page titles start with “21 days to build new habit X“, “21 day challenge to Y“, … Now you might be wondering why the number 21. Is this 3 week period actually evidence based? Does science back up this claim? Well, it’s because of a habit training myth that it takes 21 days to create a new habit.
Busting the 21-day habit myth
To understand this 3 week habit training myth we have to go back to the 1950s when a cosmetic surgeon, named Maxwell Maltz, noticed a strange phenomenon among his patients. Doctor Maxwell noticed that after performing an operation – like a nose correction – it would take patients around 21 days to get used to the new nose an face. He also observed that patients who had a leg or arm amputated would notice a phantom limb for about 21 days before adjusting to the new reality.
Intrigued by these findings, he started measuring how long it took himself to create a new habit. He also noticed it took him about 21 days. Doctor Maxwell published these findings in a book (Psycho-Cybernetics) that became a blockbuster hit. After selling more than 30 million copies the 21 day habit myth was created. It’s amazing to see how often this 3 week timeline is quoted as a statistical fact! But who doesn’t like the idea of changing your life in just 21 days?!
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 problem with this habit training myth is that Doctor Maxwell was simply observing and wasn’t making a statement of fact. He also wrote that it takes a minimum of 21 days to adapt to a new change. He never said it took 21 days!
How long does it take to create a new habit?
So how long does it take to create a new habit? Time for a habit fact check! Well, let’s have closer look at a study of Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher at University College London. She and her research team published a study in the European Journal of Social Psychology, about how long it actually takes to create a new habit.
The study examined the habits of 96 people over a period of 12 weeks 12-week. Each person had to pick one new habit for the next 12 weeks and report each day on whether or not they did the behaviour and how automatic the behaviour felt. After 12 weeks of gathering habit data they analysed it all and determined how long it actually takes for a person to go from starting a new habit to automatically doing it.
Habit Coaching fact
On average, it takes 66 days to form a new habit and that’s a real habit coaching fact. It takes more than 2 months before a new behaviour becomes automatic! How long it actually takes to create a new habit depends on the new habit, the person, and the circumstances (the environment). In the study, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for the participants to create a new habit. So next time you do some habit coaching of any kind, keep this number in mind.
But you have to admit that a title of an article or blog starting with “How to X in only 21 days” looks way better than “How to X in 254 days.”
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Interesting Habit fact
The researchers also found that “missing one opportunity to perform the behaviour did not materially affect the habit formation process.” In simple words, it doesn’t matter if you screw up every now and then. Building new habits is not an all-or-nothing thing!
Good luck with building those new habits!
The Habit Magazine team