HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO CHANGE A HABIT?
21 DAYS OF COURSE…………. COME ON, EVERYONE KNOWS THAT……. IT’S A FACT!!!!!
Well, I believe this is another one of life’s myths. The concept and evidence behind it was originally developed by Maxwell Maltz. Maltz was a plastic surgeon in the 1950s who began noticing a strange pattern among his patients. When Dr. Maltz would perform an operation like a nose job for example, he found that it would take the patient about 21 days to get used to seeing their new face. Similarly, when a patient had an arm or a leg amputated, Maltz noticed that the patient would sense a phantom limb for about 21 days before adjusting to the new situation.
These experiences prompted Maltz to think about his own adjustment period to changes and new behaviours, and he noticed that it also took himself about 21 days to form a new habit. Maltz wrote about these experiences and said, “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 gell.”
In 1960, Maltz published that quote and his other thoughts on behaviour change in a book which went on to sell more than 30 million copies, and that’s when the problem started. You see, in the decades that followed, Maltz’s work influenced nearly every major “self-help” professional and as more people recited the 21 day theory, one vital word from his original quote was forgotten. He said “a minimum of about 21 days”. Yes a minimum!. MINIMUM. … It’s vital to bear that in mind when making any lifestyle changes.
It’s remarkable how often this “21 day” timeline is quoted as a “statistical fact”. This is emotionally dangerous, because if enough people say something enough times, then everyone else starts to believe it.
It makes sense why the “21 Days” Myth would spread. It’s easy to understand. The time frame is short enough to be inspiring, but long enough to be believable, and who wouldn’t like the idea of changing your life in just three weeks? The weight loss industry use it constantly to prey on desperate people who believe them when they make such dramatic promises such as: “lose 2 stones in 21 days”. ………………… Hmmm, can you sense my blood boiling ?!
Look, it’s a simple thing to lose weight. Deprive a body of enough calories for long enough and it will lose fat. End of. Period. That is what happens. Just look at the terrible pictures from concentration camps during the war. The challenge is of course, is that most people have access to as much food as they want, and form negative habits through there life which are difficult to break. Here in lies the problem with ridiculous promises from weight loss companies and motivators alike. Think about another famous quote which is probably a little more realistic, and certainly carries a little more integrity:
“IF IT SOUNDS TOO GOOD, OR TO EASY IT PROBABLY WILL NOT WORK”. Unfortunately, when someone is desperate to lose weight they will try any short term quick fix to achieve it. But, in that process they very rarely create a new habit which is positive, healthy or sustainable.
The number of times I have personally experienced the look on a person’s face when I have said “I am looking for just a half of a pound to a pound of fat loss a week”!. What, they are traumatised. “But I can lose a stone in 1 week they say”. This article is not about the pit falls of that approach, but it really does highlight where most people go wrong.
The person I encourage to lose 1 pound a week has a far greater chance of losing more stored fat and SUSTAINING it than the person who believes they can lose a stone in a week. Why is that? It’s simple. To lose a pound of fat a week, the changes you have to make will be gentle, achievable, sustainable, less traumatic and very realistic. Did you know, certain weight loss companies actually rely on people failing, because when that person thinks, “Ah, they helped me lose 2 stone last time, so I will go back to them”, they are laughing all way to the bank.
Going back to Maltz, he was simply observing what was going on around him and wasn’t making a statement of fact.
How Long it Really Takes to Build a New Habit
One study that I read, and felt it made sense, examined the habits of 96 people over a 12-week period. Each person chose one new habit for the 12 weeks and reported each day on whether or not they did the behaviour and how automatic the behaviour felt. Some people chose simple habits like “drinking a bottle of water each day.” Others chose more difficult tasks like “running for 15 minutes” At the end of the 12 weeks, the researchers analyzed the data to determine how long it took each person to go from starting a new behaviour to automatically doing it.
THE RESULTS! On average, it takes more than 2 months before a new behaviour becomes automatic — PLEASE NOTE I SAY ON AVERAGE!. and how long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behaviour challenge, the person, and the circumstances. In the study (which was extended) it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit.
In other words, if you want to set your expectations appropriately, the truth is that it will probably take you anywhere from two months to eight months to build a new behaviour into your life — not 21 days. I KNOW THIS HURTS, BUT IT’S HONEST AND REALISTIC.
Interestingly, the researchers also found that missing one opportunity to perform the behaviour did not really affect the habit formation process. In other words, it doesn’t matter if you mess up every now and then. Building better habits is not an all-or-nothing process.
FINDING INSPIRATION IN THE LONG TERM:
Before you let this article dishearten you, let me explain three reasons why this research is actually inspiring.
FIRST: there is no reason to get depressed if you try something for a few weeks and it doesn’t become a habit. It’s supposed to take longer than that! There is no need to judge yourself if you can’t master a behaviour in 21 short days. Learn to embrace the gentle changes that you are making in your life.
SECOND: you don’t have to be perfect. Making a mistake once or twice has no measurable impact on your long-term habits. This is why you should treat failure like a scientist, give yourself permission to make mistakes, and develop strategies for getting back on track quickly.
THIRD: embracing longer timelines can help us realize that habits are a process and not an event. All of the “21 Days” hype can make it really easy to think, “Oh, I’ll just do this and it’ll be done.” But habits never work that way. You have to embrace the process. You have to commit to the plan or system.
Understanding this from the beginning makes it easier to manage your expectations and commit to making small, incremental changes rather than pressuring yourself into thinking that you have to do it all at once. Read my article on MARGINAL GAINS to get more support in this area of making gentle but sustainable changes.
To close my article, I will leave you with some thought provoking challenges. These may help you make not only informed choices, but well considered realistic choices..
THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN CHANGING A HABIT.
- How big is my habit I want to change: clearly drinking a bottle of water is easier than drinking 3 bottles!
- How long can I give myself to change: aim to make the changes easy, this will be more sustainable and more likely
- How strong is your motivation and will power in other areas: this will give you a reality check! Be sensible and realistic
- How have previous strategies worked: Consider a different strategy
- How much am I changing: The bigger the change, the more difficult it will be to sustain.
My final thought, and this is a consistent strategy I like to use in all areas of motivation:
Think of introducing something positive rather than thinking of getting rid of something negative.
For example: When going to the supermarket, instead of thinking:
“I must avoid all the chocolates and sweet stuff”, try thinking: “Now, where is all that lovely healthy food I am going to eat to get healthy”. Negative thinking is a HABIT, change it and make it POSITVE…………..
Good luck and bye for now