In 1960, Dr. Maxwell Maltz published his bestseller book “Psycho-Cybernetics” in which he defines happiness as a habit and claims that “it usually requires a minimum of about 21 days” to form a new habit. The 21 day idea caught on, because 3 weeks is neither too short (that it’s unbelievable), nor too long (that it’s discouraging).
However, Dr. Maltz was simply making an observation as a plastic surgeon. He was not declaring a statement of fact that is based on research. Also, the phrase “it usually requires a minimum of about 21 days” was propagated without the words “usually”, “minimum” and “about”.
So how long does it really take to create a new habit?
Published in the October 2010 issue of the European Journal of Social Psychology, the research article “How habits are formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world” (Phillippa Lally, et al.) attempted to answer that question. The study examined the habits of 96 people over a period of 12 week, and the data was then analyzed to determine how long it took each person to go from starting a new behavior to automatically doing it. The answer? Not 21 days.
According to Lally’s study, implementing meaningful change in our lives requires 2 to 8 months. The variation is due to the type of habit in question, the person developing it and his/her circumstances. On average it takes 66 days, not just 21. However here’s the good news:
- The study showed that if you miss an opportunity to perform an action that’s helping you build a habit, there is no significant impact on the habit formation process. In other words, if you fall off the wagon, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed … you can go back and continue trying.
- Initially, it takes longer to form a habit and persevere it, but over time, it starts to happen more easily and it requires less effort.
So what does this all mean? Well, a couple of things:
- If you’re trying a new diet, attempting to quit smoking or changing any daily routine, don’t expect new habits to be created in a week, or two or even three. Research suggests that the process requires 66 days (on average) and up to 8 months.
- It also means, when trying to make lasting change in your life, be cautious of general claims such as the 21 day rule. False ideas become accepted as fact if repeated too often, but that doesn’t mean they’re true. So, do your research in order to set realistic expectations and avoid future disappointment.
Personally, I would not concern myself with the 21 day rule or even the Lally study. Throughout my years of research on personal transformation, I realized that generalizations are often deceiving. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if it takes you 21, 66 or even a thousand days to create a new habit. What matters is your dedication to making that change happen. Plus, we’re all different and our circumstances vary, so there can never be one timeline that works for every person, even if it’s only a guideline.
I tell my clients: irrespective of how chaotic and difficult life might be, you are the master of your own behaviours. You dictate the when, where and how your habits are created, so focus on the “why” and everything else will fall into place. New habits shouldn’t have timelines … none whatsoever.