We've had it wrong this whole time! How long does it take to form a habit?

Habits have been a popular topic in personal development since the beginning. After all, we know that habits drive our daily actions, which in turn drive our outcomes. We’re always looking for new tips and tricks to form the habits we want as a part of our life.

For years, there’s been a popular idea that it takes 21 days to form a habit. This seems great because 21 days isn’t all that bad. It feels doable. The idea of a 21 day habit forming process was popularized by the plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz in the 50’s.

The Problem: We’ve all tried something for 21 days and on the 22nd ditched it.

Many have misinterpreted what Maltz actually said. He was talking about his patients when he observed, “it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to gel.” This was directly relating to how people acted after a nose job or amputation.

How long does it actually take to form a habit?

In a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Phillippa Lally and her research team decided to figure it out. What they found was that it actually took on average 66 days for a new habit to be automatic. In Lally’s research people formed habits in as little as 18 days or in some cases, as much as 254 days.

Mind Blown...

For years we’ve banked on the idea that if we do something for about a month, we’re set for the long term. Maybe this works for some, but for the majority of us we have to be thinking longer term. If not, the math says we’ll be disappointed.

What now?

Here’s three suggestions for forming new habits:

  • Let it go: If you’ve failed at creating a habit before because you were focused on doing something for a month, take a deep breath. It wasn’t you!
  • 3 Month Rule: Next time you set out to create a habit that you want to keep, make a 3 month commitment. Seem too hard? Maybe the habit just isn’t worth your time. That’s for you to decide.
  • Cheat Days: There wasn’t empirical evidence to prove that missing a day or two along the way had long term effect on forming a new habit. If you miss a day, it’s okay. You haven’t lost all momentum in the effort to form a new habit.

Habits are critical to our overall success, and we need to understand that forming them is a commitment. However, it’s also important to know that we are all unique and there’s no magic number to creating a habit.

What’s the single most important lesson from this post:

Consistency over a longer period of time increases our odds of success.  

Chris CapehartComment