Busted: It does NOT take 21 days to break OR make a habit

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

                                                                                                            -Aristotle

A newly published study has proven that the old “It takes 21 days to make a habit” theory is a MYTH. We have all been deceived, and no one could be happier about this than I am. Ask yourself, what is the one thought that you hold on to when starting a new diet or fitness plan? If you are like me, the thought is this:

All I have to do is hold on for 3 weeks; then, this will be easy.

The problem is that this has never worked for me, ever. I get to the 21st day and realize that instead of becoming easy, that new thing is still a struggle and a pain. I want the behavior to be automatic, and instead it is something I have to force myself to do. At that point, if it’s not something I really, really want, I quit.

Cue the self-loathing and regret. Why can’t I do it? What is wrong with me? Why can’t I stick to things? Why can’t I be like everybody else? People have built businesses based on their belief in the rock solid knowledge that it takes 21 days to become comfortable doing anything. We can all thank Dr. Maxwell Maltz for starting us down this path. In 1960, he published a book called Psycho-Cybernetics. In it, he wrote this:

‘It usually requires a minimum of about 21 days to effect any perceptible change in a mental image. Following plastic surgery it takes about 21 days for the average patient to get used to his new face. When an arm or leg is amputated the “phantom limb” persists for about 21 days. People must live in a new house for about three weeks before it begins to “seem like home”. 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.’

Self-help gurus took this idea and ran with it. Now, 54 years later, it has become common knowledge. The only problem is, he says a MINIMUM of 21 days. He is talking about getting used to an amputated limb! He is not talking about changing life-long behaviors.

So if 21 days is a myth, how long does it take a new behavior to become a habit? A habit is a “response that is elicited automatically by an associated situation”. For example, before I prepare any food in the kitchen I wash my hands. My body just moves to the sink when I enter the kitchen and before I know it, my hands are wet and soapy. That’s a habit. Researchers at the University of London have found that it takes an average of 66 days for a new behavior to reach the level of automaticity where it can be called a habit.

Before you run off and tell your friends that, though, remember they said AVERAGE. That means that in their study one person gained a habit and 18 days and another didn’t until he reach 254 days. The more complex and difficult the behavior, the longer it takes to become automatic. The only thing we can say for sure is that if you do something every day for ten months, it will become a habit.

What does this mean? It means don’t give up after three weeks! You aren’t a failure! Anything worth doing is worth doing for as long as it takes to get it done.

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