Busting the 21 day habit building myth

Busting the 21 day Habit Myth

Busting the 21 day habit building myth

If you google 21 day challenge you find a startling 1.180.000.000 search results! Fix your diet and reset your body in 21 days. The ultimate 21 day fat burner challenge. It seems like you can learn or do almost anything in under three weeks! But is this 3 week period actually evidence based or is it just one or other habit myth? Can you really build a new habit in 21 days?

21 Day Habit Myth

Does science back up this 3 week claim? Nope. The 3 week habit myth started back in the 1950s. Maxwell Maltz, a cosmetic surgeon, noticed a strange phenomenon among his patients. After performing a cosmetic operation – like a nose correction – it took patients almost 21 days to get used to their new nose. Maxwell also noted that people after undergoing a leg or arm amputation, noticed a phantom limb for about 21 days. It took patients almost 21 days to get used to their new reality.

Intrigued by his findings, he started measuring how long it took himself to develop new habits. It took him also about 21 days. Later on he published his findings in a book called Psycho Cybernetics that became an instant blockbuster hit. 3o million copies later the 21 day habit myth was born. It’s amazing to see how often this 3 week timeline is quoted as a statistical fact! But I guess everybody likes the idea that you can do something in under 3 weeks.

“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.”

Doctor Maxwell only made an observation. He 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 wrote that it takes 21 days.

So how long does it take to build a habit?

Time for a habit fact check! A study conducted by Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher at the University College London, shows how long it actually takes to build a new habit. 96 people were observed over a period of 12 weeks. Each person had to pick one new habit for the next 12 weeks. They had to report daily on whether or not they did their new habit and how automatic the behavior felt. After 12 weeks of gathering data they analysed the results and determined how long it actually takes for a person to go from starting a new habit to automatically doing it.

Busting the 21 day Habit Myth - Habit Aha momentOn average it takes 66 days to build a new habit. And that’s a real evidence based fact. It takes more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic! The habit building success rate also depends on a lot of other factors. It depends on the new habit, the person, and the environment. In the study, it took between 18 days to 254 days for the participants to create their new habit. So next time you do some habit coaching or are looking for your next blog title, keep this number in mind. But you have to admit that How to do X in 21 days sounds way better than How to do Y in 254 days

You Can Screw Up

The good news is that researchers also found that “missing one opportunity to perform the new behavior did not materially effect the habit formation process. In simple words. You can screw up now and then. Building habits is not an all-or-nothing thing!

Good luck with those new habits!

Haroun (online manager CUTE team)

Read more about the wonderful world of habits:

  • Discover how Haroun (that’s me) learned how to skate in less than a year using the 5 step habit loop. Read article.
  • What can dogs teach us about building habits and corporate training? Read blog.
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