We’ve all heard that a new habit can be formed one day at a time, by repeatedly doing the simplest of things.
But, how long does it really take to form a new habit?
In the 1950s, a plastic surgeon named Maxwell Maltz noticed an interesting pattern among his patients.
After performing an operation, it would take the patient around 21 days to get used to seeing his or her new face.
This prompted Maltz to think about the time it took him to adapt to changes in his own life. He noticed it took about 21 days for him to form a new habit, too.
Around this time, he wrote, “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.”
Maltz published his thoughts on behaviour change in a book called Psycho-Cybernetics, which became a blockbuster, selling over 30 million copies.
Maltz’s work has influenced almost every self-help professional from Zig Ziglar to Tony Robbins. And, as more people recited his story, we all forgot that he said “a minimum of about 21 days” and shortened it to, “It takes 21 days to form a new habit.”
That’s how this common myth was formed. Yet, these timelines are still quoted as statistical facts. For, if enough people say something enough times, everyone starts to believe it – particularly nowadays, in the age of the internet!
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.Aristotle
It makes sense why this Myth spread. After all, it’s easy to understand and simple to remember.
So what’s the real answer? How long does it actually take to form a new habit? And, is there any research to back it up?
Well, in a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher at University College London, set about finding out just how long it actually takes to form a new habit.
The research looked at the habits of 96 people over a 12-week period. Each person chose a new habit for the 12 weeks and reported each day on whether or not the new behaviour had been carried out, and how automatic the new behaviour felt.
Some chose habits like drinking water with lunch. Others chose more difficult tasks like running for 15 minutes before dinner.
At the end of the 12 weeks, Lally and her team of researchers analysed the data to determine how long it took each person to go from consciously starting a new behaviour to unconsciously doing it as part of their new routine.
The research suggests that, on average, it takes more than 2 months before new behaviour beds down – 66 days to be exact. How long it took varied according to the new behaviour, the person and the situation. In Lally’s study, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit.
In other words, it will probably take you anywhere from two months to eight months to build a new habit — not 21 days.
Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.Jim Ryun
Call To Action
At the end of the day, how long it takes doesn’t really matter that much. Whether it takes 21, 66 or 254 days, you have to start by choosing a new behaviour and then simply do it!
So, with over 300 days still left to go this year, there’s plenty of scope for you to choose a few simple things to commit doing, just once a day.
Then, by the end of 2016, you will have formed many new habits.
What would be in your one-a-day list?
Here are a few things I’ve committed to doing once a day in 2016, just to get you started:
- Go for a short walk and learn about one building or area that I pass along the way
- Help a non-profit in a significant way (e.g. start fundraising, do outreach, etc.)
- Do one random act of kindness each day
- Send a greetings card to someone I know, for no specific reason other than I can!
- say “hi” to at least five strangers in the street
- try out something different to eat or drink
For more on forming habits, take a look at this recent article found on Inc.com: 7 TED Talks That Help You Start (and Maintain) Good Habits