How long does it take to form a new habit?

We’ve all likely heard the rule that it takes 21 days to form a new habit, but where did this number come from and is it actually true?

It’s easy to see why 21 days caught on - it’s long enough to be a challenge but short enough to be believable, and since we love magic numbers and easy fixes, who wouldn’t want to change their life in just 3 weeks?

The 21 day myth came about after cosmetic surgeon, Dr Maxwell Maltz’s published some of his thoughts and experiences with behaviour change in 1960. Dr Maltz, 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.

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 jell.”

After his work, Psycho-Cybernetics, was published and this quote was picked up by the masses, it became widely accepted that 21 days was the rule of thumb for any behaviour change. Notice though, the word “minimum” has been conveniently left out as the rule ages and passes from person to person.

His idea was correct in theory, but diluted significantly as it became widespread.

So how long does it take to form a new habit then?

Ultimately, it depends on the habit in question. Generally, a negative or harmful behaviour or thought might take only 1 or 2 times to stick. Have you ever noticed how easy getting takeaways one Friday night is to repeat? You order once, and by the time next Friday rolls around, you may just have a new tradition.

Healthy habits on the other hand can take as long as 8 months to form. According to a 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit.

The study also concluded that, on average, it takes 66 days for a new behaviour to become automatic.

Here’s how you give yourself a fighting chance…

Harness motivation and start successful - the first days seem to make the biggest difference, so it’s worth trying to be particularly diligent at the beginning of the attempted-habit-acquisition process. This is called the motivation wave - grasp it when it’s strong and the reward is high.

Interestingly, research has found that missing one opportunity to perform the behaviour does not materially 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.

The bottom line is this: There’s no one-size-fits-all figure, which is why this time frame is so broad; some habits are easier to form than others, and some people may find it easier to develop new behaviours.

There’s no right or wrong timeline. Whether it takes you 1 day, 1 month or 1 year, the work needs to be done and the best place to start is with focussing on day 1 and day 1 only.

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