How long does it take to form a new habit?
As we are half way through February 2019, how many of you have dropped all of your new year’s resolutions? Every year around early January we see an explosion of articles regarding the new year and this wonderful new you, with all kinds of people offering advice as to how to make this year your best ever. For me I don’t even read any of this now, as I have been able to reach a level of discipline and routine in my life, which is based around goals and achieving goals largely built upon continuous personal development over many years. Whether it’s the start of January or the end of June, it makes little difference to my mindset and energy levels in relation to changing or improving my life.
From a scientific perspective, an interesting slant on this, is how long does it actually take for something to become a habit. Dr. Maxwell Maltz was a plastic surgeon in the 1950s when he began noticing a strange pattern among his patients.
When Dr. Maltz would perform an operation — like a nose job, for example — he found that it would take the patient about 21 days to get used to seeing their new face. Similarly, when a patient had an arm, or a leg amputated, Maltz noticed that the patient would sense a phantom limb for about 21 days before adjusting to the new situation.
These experiences prompted Maltz to think about his own adjustment period to changes and new behaviours, and he noticed that it also took himself about 21 days to form a new habit. Maltz wrote about these experiences and said, “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.”
In 1960, Maltz published that quote and his other thoughts on behaviour change in a book called Psycho-Cybernetics. The book went on to become a huge success, selling more than 30 million copies.
However, problems soon started to arise with this philosophy from Maltz. In the decades that followed, Maltz’s work influenced nearly every major “self-help” professional from Zig Ziglar to Brian Tracy to Tony Robbins. However as more people referred to Maltz’s work, more and more people began to forget that he said “a minimum of about 21 days”. It then became, “It takes 21 days to form a new habit.”. Given what we now know about the brain and people’s ability to take shortcuts in life and the brains ability to grasp a concept and lock it down if the subconscious wants to believe it, it’s easy to understand how the 21-day answer came about.
I suppose If enough people say something enough times, then people will start to believe it. If we look at the world today, how many people say things that are factually not true, yet if enough people say it, and keep saying it, people will start to believe it. Let’s say in reference to Brexit for people living in Northern Ireland someone could come out with “No deal is better than a bad deal” you get my point!!
Back to Maltz, it makes sense why the “21 Days” Myth would spread. The time frame is short enough to be inspiring, but long enough to be believable. And who wouldn’t like the idea of changing your life in just three weeks?
But the problem is that Maltz was simply observing what was going on around him and wasn’t making a statement of fact. Furthermore, he made sure to say that this was the minimum amount of time needed to adapt to a new change.
So, what’s the real answer? How long does it take to form a habit? How long does it take a break a bad habit? Is there any science to back this up? And what does all of this mean for you and me?
How long does it really take?
Phillippa Lally is a health psychology researcher at University College London. In a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Lally and her research team decided to figure out just how long it actually takes to form a habit.
The study examined the habits of 96 people over a 12-week period. Each person chose one new habit for the 12 weeks and reported each day on whether or not they did the behaviour and how automatic the behaviour felt.
Some people chose simple habits like “drinking a bottle of water with lunch.” Others chose more difficult tasks like “running for 15 minutes before dinner.” At the end of the 12 weeks, the researchers analysed the data to determine how long it took each person to go from starting a new behaviour to automatically doing it.
On average, it takes more than 2 months before a new behaviour becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact. The timeframe can vary widely depending on the behaviour, the person, and the circumstances. In Lally's study, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit.
In other words, if you want to set your expectations appropriately, the truth is that it will probably take you anywhere from two months to eight months to build a new behaviour into your life — not 21 days.
Find people who are winning.
For me over the last ten years I have sought out those individuals, organisations, companies that appear to be not only be winning in business but also winning in life, in an effort to try and determine the secrets of success. I have looked at hugely successful people like Warren Buffet, his organisation Berkshire Hathaway, to Ironman triathletes and endurance champions like former navy seal David Goggins, to local people and companies in Ireland who have been successful in business like Cork’s Pat Phelan currently building his third or fourth big business with Sisu Clinic and also going through an incredible lifestyle transformation by exercising most days. All of these people have succeeded in many aspects of life, however what I have come to find is that the secret of their success, is not really a secret. It is no surprise that there are a number of ingredients all of these kinds of people have in common, which for me, has allowed me to figure out how I might go about leading my own life through positive acts of change, hoping for a positive uplifting return on my investment (ROI). Another way to say this is to try and form as many good habits as possible.
I think one of the things people really struggle with in life is letting go of things they know are bad for them and not conducive to a successful business, good health, strong rewarding relationship, but they continue their behaviour. Looking back, I was probably no different, but the game changing part for me came in the form of the onset of a serious auto immune illness in 2006. Everything changed when I heard the words “you have multiple sclerosis and will have it for the rest of your life”. My own experiences in this regard is now well documented through my books, website and other media exposure of my healing journey, but that was a time in my life where I hit my wall, and it's suffice to say that most of us will at one point or another experience this “fork in the road moment”.
Thankfully and on a very personal level I was able to make some good choices after a number of years of very poor health and encroach upon a plan that has allowed my body and my mind to heal extensively, and from a business perspective continue to learn, grow and stay out in front.
21 days, 66 days, 90 days, 180 days….. and so on, it now doesn’t really matter to me. I have acquired the tools largely through life experiences and ongoing personal development to develop a mindset where I believe pretty much, whatever I want to achieve in life, is possible.
Ultimately I feel all of this comes down to you being at a point in your life where you have the answers to these three life defining questions;
1) Who are you?
2) What do you want?
3) How are you going to get it?
If you figure all of this out, and I have to tell you it’s a difficult journey, then you won’t be counting the days with regards to worrying about developing a good habit. You will be making the days count.