We have all heard that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. However, do you know why this is the number of days all the experts in the self-help space use?

It actually comes from a plastic surgeon named Maxwell Maltz from the 1950s. He started to notice that after an operation, such as a nose job, it took the patient about 21 days to start getting used to the change. He also noticed this with patients needing an amputation.

He looked into this further with his own life and realized it took him about 21 days to form a new habit, as well. However, self-help experts often forget to state that it takes at least 21 days, not exactly 21 days to form a new habit. This is what helped the myth of the 21-day habit form.

The Truth About Forming New Habits

A study done by Phillippa Lally at the University College London, 96 people were examined for 12 weeks. Each was given a new habit and had to report back every single day on how well they did or didn’t do the habit. They also have to report on whether it had become automatic yet.

The habits could be simple, such as drinking water with lunch or they could be more difficult, such as running for 15 minutes before dinner. The results were analyzed after the 12 weeks and the answer wasn’t 21 days like most might think.

On average, it took 66 days for a habit to become automatic in the study. However, the range from the study was 18 days to 254 days as it can depend on the person, the circumstances and the habit. This means, when you start trying to form a new habit, 21 days isn’t long enough. You need to plan for anywhere from about two months to eight months for the behavior to become automatic.

The Good News

Now, you know it takes more than 21 days to form a new habit. This means, when you try something for a few weeks and have a bad day, you don’t have to be so hard on yourself. Habits take longer to form and in some people, they can date many months.

This also means you don’t have to be perfect. If you are attempting to wake up earlier every day, for example, making the mistake of sleeping in a few times during the next few months isn’t going to throw you off track. Too often, we think we have to be perfect for those 21 days, and then the behavior will just be automatic. This simply isn’t the truth, so you can stop being hard on yourself if you have a bad day along the journey.

The longer timetable for forming a new habit can also help us to realize it’s not an event. Forming a habit is a process or a journey and not something that happens quickly. Again, we look at it as an event because it seems easy to just do something for 21 days in a row, right?

Adjusting Your Goals

Now you can start adjusting your goals when it comes to building new habits. You shouldn’t set goals based on 21 days or 66 days, however. Instead, set your goals with the understanding you may need to take longer to form a habit than you thought. If this happens, just adjust your goals accordingly.

It doesn’t matter if you’re quick with a habit and it’s normal behavior in 18 days or if you’re slow and it takes all 254 days. You still cannot get to the automatic behavior you want without starting on day #1.


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