The Myth of the 21 Day Habit
Do you remember playing the game Telephone when you were a child? You would whisper a comment to a friend who would repeat it to another friend and so on through several people. When the whispered comment finally came back to you, it was unrecognizable. Belief in the 21 day habit came from a large-scale game of telephone.
Don’t Blame Dr. Maltz
Dr. Maltz was a plastic surgeon in the 1950’s. When Dr. Maltz amputated a limb or sculpted a new nose, he noticed that patients needed approximately 21 days to get used to their new reality.
The doctor further noticed that it took him a similar length of time to personally adopt a new behaviour. In 1960, Dr. Maltz published a book called Psycho-Cybernetics in which he wrote these fateful words, “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.”
Psycho-Cybernetics was an enormous hit, selling more than 30 million copies. Self-help gurus the world over quoted Dr. Maltz. They are still quoting him. Unfortunately, in a multi-decades game of Telephone, the words “a minimum of about” were dropped and we have come to believe in the 21 day habit.
The Seductiveness of the 21 Day Habit
We have known for at least a decade that Dr. Maltz was misquoted, yet the myth of the 21 day habit endures. In an article published five days ago a blogger begins, “Research shows that it takes 21 days to develop a habit.” (It doesn’t.)
There are 21 day retreats to change your life, 21 day fixes to reset your body, and 21 day meditation challenges to calm your mind.
The allure of the 21 day habit is understandable. It is appealing to imagine that we can reboot some aspect of our lives with just three weeks of intense effort. A month sounds too long. But three weeks? Three weeks feels doable. Unfortunately, most of the time it isn’t.
Good habits are worth being fanatical about.John Irving
What the Research Really Shows
A 2009 study by scientists at University College in London examined how long it would take to develop a new habit to the point of automaticity–no resistance or second thoughts. 96 volunteers were given the option of forming a new habit in eating, drinking, or exercise and asked to implement it in the same context each day for twelve weeks.
Participants chose behaviours such as “eating a piece of fruit at lunch”, “drinking a bottle of water with lunch” and “running for 15 minutes before dinner.” They logged on to the study website each day and completed a 12 question self-report.
Results are based on only 82 participants (14 dropped out) and on self-reports. Researchers were unsure if answering the same questions day after day might have affected participants’ responses.
Nevertheless, caveats and qualifications aside, some interesting information emerged from the research:
- Extremely simple habits, such as drinking water with lunch, can become automatic in as few as 18 days.
- Complex behaviours, like exercising, can take as many as 254 days to become automatic.
- The average time required to reach the point where a habit was automatic was 66 days.
- Contrary to popular opinion, it doesn’t hurt to miss the occasional day. It didn’t matter whether the misses were early in the 12 weeks or later.
- Lapses (missing an entire week), however, were disastrous, resulting in people leaving the study.
- Even amongst volunteers motivated to create new habits, fifty percent of them didn’t do the habit enough to make it automatic.
Which habits have been easy for you to develop to the point of automaticity? Which ones are still a challenge? Let us know below.