Breaking Habits: How Long Does It Really Take to Form a Habit? (not 21 days)

How long does it really take to form a habit?

Does it take 21 Days to Make a Habit?

How long does it take to make a habit?

Have you ever heard that it takes 21 days to make a habit? I’m sure at some point you have. That idea does sound great, but… have you ever tried to form a habit in 21 days, and after 21 days, you fell off the wagon; thus, the habit didn’t stick? (raises hand)

Yup, I have too.

I mean, it does give peace of mind that all it takes is 21 days to change a habit and thus change your life. But if that is the case, and all it takes is 21 days to make a new habit such as working out, eating better, flossing daily, drinking a glass of water at each meal, etc… wouldn’t many of your problems be solved by now?

What is a Habit Anyways?

For the purpose of this blog, a habit is “an action that is triggered automatically” (keyword automatically).

Basically, something that you don’t have to think about but just happens on its own. This can be putting on your seatbelt as soon as you get into the car, brushing your teeth as soon as you get up, and telling your spouse that you love them before you leave.

These are habits. Those are examples of things you don’t have to think about but just happen automatically through repetition and routine. If you have to make a conscious effort, it’s not a habit… yet.

Where did the 21-day myth come from?

This part is interesting because this actually originated from a plastic surgeon in the ’50s. When this surgeon performed an operation, such as a nose job, he noticed that it took a patient about 21 days to get used to their new face.

He noticed this phenomenon with many other surgeries, and it led him to make a 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.” – Maxwell Maltz.

This was quoted in a famous book, “Psycho-Cybernetics” (a good book, by the way), and ever since then, people have run with it. I don’t blame them either, but who doesn’t like the idea that it would only take you 3 weeks to change your life.

…But if all it took was 3 weeks, how come you haven’t broken or changed all the habits you want?

Because if you’re reading this, I think you can tell that, for most, it takes longer than three weeks to form life-changing habits.

One part is that the quote was taken out of context. If you refer back to it, you’ll notice that Maltz said it takes a MINIMUM (not a concrete number), and it was an observation, not a statement with scientific backing. If you read on, you’ll understand what I mean. But first, we have to ask the question…

How long does it take to create or form a new habit?

A study conducted by Philippa Lally, a health psychology researcher, assembled a team to determine how long it takes to form a habit. The study examined the habits of 96 people over 12 weeks, and these habits ranged from drinking a glass at breakfast to running 15 minutes before every meal.

These participants reported daily, and researchers analyzed the data collected from the individuals to see how long it took for these habits to become automatic behaviors. On average, it takes more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact.

Going even deeper, truthfully, the length of time it can take a person to form a new habit can vary widely depending on the person’s behaviors, circumstances, AND the emotional reasons behind the habit. Lastly, notice that the habits ranged from anywhere from 18-256 days.

Again, a person’s behavior, circumstances, habits, and emotional reasons can vary the length of time up to 256 days. Not 21 days.

Well hell… Don’t let that dishearten you.

Something to make you feel better is don’t feel like a failure if you fall off the wagon only a few weeks in. New habits, especially ones that involve changing your life, take longer than just 21 days.

Falling off the wagon is normal, and it will happen. Just because you fell off the wagon doesn’t mean you are broken, and doesn’t mean anything is wrong. Again it just means that you need more time under your belt.

How to use this to your advantage

First, understand to change your body, you have to change your life, you have to change MANY day-to-day habits, and this is what gets people in trouble. They try to change too many habits, large ones at that, at once.

Let me give you an example: Let’s say you’re 40lbs overweight. You haven’t worked out in several years; you eat like crap, sleep like crap, drink crap, and overall feel like crap—your too tired to do anything. You get home from work, and all you want to do is change into some comfy clothes, sit on the couch, snack and binge a new Netflix series.

But you decided it’s time to lose that weight, so you choose to workout 5 days a week, eat 4 home-cooked meals a day and be in bed at 9 am, and up by 6 and only have one glass of wine a week. This is a LOT of change, not to say it can’t be done, but it’s not going to be easy.

What happens most of the time for individuals who make this overnight shift is that they will do good for a few days, maybe even a few weeks. Then life happens, and they miss a workout, miss a meal, feel bad because they missed, beat themselves up mentally, and go back to the old habits/lifestyle. Sound familiar?

To make a change on that level, you have to anticipate that you ARE going to fall off the wagon once in a while. That it’s going to challenge you, AND it’s going to take longer than 21 (or even 66 days) to make those habits automatic.

But that’s ok, and that’s normal!

Now, of course, you don’t want to have the feeling of failure because that can be a buzzkill to your motivation, so what you can do is this… Start with smaller habits, one or two at a time, something that is in the direction of your goal and something that you can build off of. In the above example, I’d recommend starting with working out three times a week and focus on ONE home-cooked meal a day.

Those two habits alone will take about 5-7 weeks to make automatic or routine. You’ll probably drop about 5-6lbs and build some momentum to your work on your next set of habits. I know that doesn’t sound as sexy as the 5xweek 4 meals a day habit, BUT you have to master 3xweek and 1 healthy meal before you can get to 5.

What to do now

I’m ironically not a big believer in setting small goals or habits; I want you to think big and go big! But I want you to play the long game and do it smartly and break it up into pieces.

Start with creating a habit of working out 3x a week, one meal a day, only drinking on a Saturday; make that a habit. Lose your first 5lbs, then work on your next five. If your goal is 40lbs, work on 5lb habits at a time, do this 8 times, and I can assure you that you’ll lose that 40lbs, probably even more, much faster with a better mindset than you think.

In Health,
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