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Does it REALLY take 21 Days to Form a Habit?


Back in the 1950s, a famous plastic surgeon called Maxwell Maltz developed a theory that patients would take around 21 days to adapt after he had performed surgery on them. This included being able to recognize their new face (after facial surgery) or not being able to feel a limb (after an amputation for example). He then started to apply the rule to himself and his own situations and habits to see if 21 days really was the right timeline.

Before long, he was convinced that 21 days was the least amount of time required for an old mental picture to disappear and for a new one to appear, and for phantom limbs to be gone.

His observations and research had such an impact on the world that from 1960 onward he began to influence many of the big names in the scientific world.

However, this was the beginning of a major issue.

Individuals started to overlook the fact that he said “at least 21 days” and abbreviated it to, “It takes 21 days to develop a new habit.” This was, seemingly, a positive message to give the people of the world – 21 days sounded short enough to be manageable, but long enough to be convincing as “real” science.

The problem is that Maxwell Maltz was simply making observations from his day to day work. Moreover, he was also very careful to state that the minimum amount of time was 21 days – and this was offered more as a general guideline rather than a factual statement.

So, is there any truth in this theory? And if so, how can this help us to make or break a habit?

How Long Does it Really Take to Form a New Habit?

In more recent years, a team of psychologists did some in-depth research on how long it would take to build a new habit.

The research study analysed 96 individuals for 12-weeks. Every day the participants would report on their behaviors and whether they felt like they were developing a new habit or not.

The study participants got to choose a new habit – all of varying levels of difficulty – and the researchers collected their reports and analysed the date accordingly to find the answer.

So…? Come on! Tell us the answer!

The study concluded that it takes on average 66 days to develop a new habit. In fact, the longest time it took a participant to form a habit was 254 days, whereas the shortest time was 18 days.

It is worth bearing in mind that every person is different, and this study focused on a number of different habits of varying difficulty. However, I think it is safe to say that 21 days probably isn’t enough to form one habit.

It’s not all doom and gloom though – the research also found that if a participant did NOT perform their activity on one day, it didn’t stop them eventually developing the habit. This is great news for those of us who constantly feel like we’re falling off the wagon. Just get back on it and keep going!

Looking Ahead to the Future

Before you let the news of “21 days is unrealistic” get you down, we should discuss three reasons why these results are really motivating:

  1. 21 Days is Too Short Many people try to kick a habit or pick up a new habit in just a couple of weeks, and we know from this study that it’s not a realistic timeline. Don’t be discouraged if it takes you a long time.

  2. It’s OK to Make Mistakes Don’t get dragged down by your mistakes – you’re only human. The most important thing is to pick yourself up after you feel like you’ve made the error and carry on.

  3. It’s Better to Think Long Term Never set yourself a tight deadline for something that is important for you. Focus instead on long term goals and living a happy, fulfilling lifestyle.

Overall, it’s about making small changes and managing them the way that is best for you. Even if it takes baby steps to relieve the pressure, then you’ll be much more successful than the person that tried too much too fast.

How do I Begin?

Ultimately, the time it takes to form a new habit doesn’t matter – it is more important to get started and dedicate yourself to your chosen new behavior.

Whether this is breaking a bad habit that you no longer want in your life or forming a new one to help you feel happier and healthier, the trick is to make small adjustments and have a BIG impact on your life.

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