You’re probably familiar with the old adage that it takes only 21 days to form a new habit. But how accurate and truthful is this? We look into the origins of this myth and see how science and psychology can help overcome the barriers of breaking bad habits and form new healthy ones.
The idea of changing a habit in 21 days appears to have originated in the 1950s with a plastic surgeon named Maxwell Maltz. Dr. Maltz observed that it takes a minimum of about 21 days for people to adapt to a new behavior or accept a change in their image. As Maltz himself noted, the 21 day time frame was a minimum time to change. His conclusion also came from personal observation, not from scientific analysis of how long it takes to adopt or drop a habit.
21 days To A Better You?
Breaking a bad habit or adopting a new fitness habit takes a variable amount of time, depending on several factors. A study of 96 individuals published in the European Journal of Social Psychology monitored their efforts to change a variety of habits. Some of the individuals tried to make minor changes, like drinking a bottle of water with lunch. Other individuals tried to make larger changes, such as running for at least 15 minutes before dinner.
Researchers measured the time it took for the new behaviors to become automatic. The result? The time to when a behavior became automatic varied between 18 and 254 days, with an average of 66 days, not 21 days as we’ve commonly come to know it as.
The time to create a new habit varies with the person, the behavior, and the circumstances. If you enjoy being outdoors, it will be easier to go for a brisk 30-minute walk every day. A sedentary person forced to exercise by their doctor will have a hard time changing. A minor change, like replacing one soft drink a day with water, is easier than exercising every day.
How To Make It Stick
Science points to a number of practical steps you can take to adopt a new habit, or drop a bad one. Consistency is worth going for, but don’t worry about missing a day either. This won’t affect your ability to form a new fitness habit and keep it up.
A PsychCentral article offers some good tips for adopting any new habit, so you can try it when you resolve to get fit. Their plan applies both to dropping a bad habit and to adopting a good one:
- Don’t be too hard on yourself as you work to make the change. Motivation and intent are as important as follow through.
- Identify the function of the habit. Knowing why you’re making the change and the benefits goes a long way in making it stick.
- Write down your goal. Having a visual reminder and placing it somewhere you’ll see it every day like on the fridge will remind you of what you’re working towards.
- Recruit a friend to keep you accountable. Making a change can be hard and having a support system can help make it easier.
- Give yourself time. All good things are worth the wait.
- Allow yourself some slip-ups as you make the change.
Last but not least, having realistic expectations can make the transition out of a bad habit and into a new one much smoother and more likely to stick. Science shows that making a significant change in our habits almost always takes longer than three weeks. You can be setting yourself up for failure if you expect hitting the gym five days a week to feel like a habit after only three weeks.