In this article you are going to learn how long it ACTUALLY takes to form a new habit.
In this article, you will learn how long it ACTUALLY takes to form a new habit.
Maxwell Maltz was a plastic surgeon in the 1950s who noticed a strange pattern among his patients1.
Almost whenever Dr Maltz would operate – like amputating an arm or a leg, he found that the patients would sense a phantom limb for about 21 days before adjusting to the new situation.
The same was true for other operations, such as when he would give other patients a nose job; two of the patients would also take roughly 21 days getting used to their new face.
These observations motivated Dr Maltz to investigate his own adjustment periods, and he noticed that it took him 21 days to form a new habit.
Maltz wrote about these discoveries:
“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 the sixties, Maltz’s published his observations and thoughts on behaviour formation in his book Psycho-Cybernetics. That book became a cult classic, which sold more than 30 million times.
What followed was an avalanche of “personal development” gurus like Tony Robbins, Zig Ziglar, or Brian Tracy. Brian took his discovery, butchered his quote, and promoted the idea that it takes 21 days to form a new habit.
And this is where the shit show began…
First of all, Dr Maltz was not making an axiomatic statement of fact. He was simply describing his observation, and he made bloody sure to add the word “minimum” to it.
In the end, people kept throwing the number 21 around until it was widely regarded as the truth, even though it was not.
This is one of the reasons we all have to be careful with opinion-based mental health professionals on the internet; just because something sounds right, does not mean it is right.
But what is the real answer? If Dr Maxwell was wrong, who was right? How many days does it take to form a habit?
How Long Does It Actually Take To Grow A New Habit? (According To Science)
Phillippa Lally, a researcher at the University College London, conducted an experiment which gives a more scientific answer to the question: How long does it take to form a habit?3
She investigated the routines of 96 people over four months. Each person chooses a habit to keep for four months, and they reported back each day whether or not they did the habit, and if it felt automatic.
Some participants choose easy habits, such as “drinking a bottle of water with lunch”. In contrast, others preferred more demanding tasks, such as “running for 15 minutes before dinner”. By the end of the study, the researchers analysed the data and concluded:
On average, it takes two months before a new behaviour becomes automatic – 66 days to be precise.
In Lally’s study, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit.
A surprising discovery from her study was that “missing one opportunity to perform the behaviour did not materially affect the habit formation process”.
This means that the changes are less important than you make them out to be. If your goal is it to make it a habit of hitting the gym a routine, it is completely fine if you take a rest day here and there.
66 days is a long fucking time to change, right? Before your lazy ass gets disheartened, I would like to share with you three case studies that challenge the findings of Lally and her colleagues. They are personal anecdotes from either my life or the life of my clients; I am sharing them with you to show you that positive and negative transformation can happen in an instant.
Case One: Becoming A Health Nut Over Night
I once had a friend named Donovan, who had all sorts of bad nutritional habits, including overeating. I have once seen this dude get kicked out of an all you can eat restaurant because he got into a fight with the waiter because they ran out of ice cream (you can guess whose fault it was that they had no more ice cream, to begin with!!).
As a consequence of his compulsive eating habits, my friend developed a couple of nasty physical symptoms, none of them, however, seemed to bother him. In fact, he seemed to be getting happier the fatter he got.
He was proud of his behavioural insufficiencies and felt that his laid-back code of conduct was the reason he was so happy.
Things changed one day when his doctor ran a blood test and informed him that he had diabetes. At first, he was unphased, but when the doctor told him about the possible side effects, my friend’s eyes began to widen. One symptom, in particular, scared the crap out of him: Erectile dysfunction.
The moment he learned that his “manhood” was in danger, was the moment where he went away from romanticising his bad habits and moved towards the complete demonisation of everything that could potentially move him closer to the loss of his libido.
A week after he got this diagnosis, I met my friend at the gym where he did the stair masters like a possessed maniac. By the end of it, I learned that he had wrapped himself with transparent film in order to sweat more.
From one day to another, Donovan became obsessed with “health” habits, and he lost 40 pounds within four months. It took him exactly one moment of clarity to alter his entire behavioural course.
Why? Because Donovan attached MASSIVE PAIN to his former lifestyle. He formed new routines in record time because change became a must for him.
Emotions create habits. If you want to change your behaviour, adjust the intensity of the emotions that you attach to your habits.
Read that sentence again.
Suppose your brain realises that by doing behaviour X it will move you closer to your personal version of hell. In that case, it will be much harder for you to engage in acts of self-destruction. I have developed an effective worksheet to kick you into action, click here to get the FREE Hell Blueprinting Technique.
Case Two: Forming A Meditation Habit in 72 Hours
In early 2020, I had a client who successfully formed a meditation habit in only 72 hours. Before working with a behaviour architect, she had tried to develop the routine by herself but failed over and over again.
What worked for her was to RADICALLY scale down the behaviour, and make her meditation habit tiny so that she did not have any excuse for not doing the meditation habit.
What we did was to agree that the routine was not the problem; the problem was that she could not hack the automatism behind the routine.
Originally she wanted to meditate every morning for 30 minutes. However, she never could get herself to sit down because 30 minutes was too much of an investment for her.
We transformed her goal of meditating for 30 minutes a day into meditating for 3 minutes in the morning.
She was a busy person, but she always had 3 minutes.
This was the right behavioural hack for her, and the routine stuck immediately.
Another way to shorten the memory curve of learning new habits is by making the behaviours simpler.
Here are a few examples of behavioural downscaling:
- Running for 30 minutes becomes putting on your running shoes.
- Reading a book a week becomes reading a page a day.
- Writing a book a month becomes writing one shitty page a day.
Case Three: Forming A Cheese Cake Habit in 48 Hours
Not only can good habits be formed quickly, but we can also develop bad habits in record time. In 2019, I was living as a digital nomad in Bali, and my team and I only worked out of hipsterish coffee shops.
One of the things most coffee shops had in common was that they all had spectacular cheesecakes. One day, they had Oreo cheesecake, the next day they had caramel cheesecake, the next they had lemon cheesecake… Needless to say – I “tried” them all.
Within 48 hours, I developed the habit of ordering a cheesecake after each meal. I only managed to break this bad chain by telling the waiters that they should stop selling me cheesecake even if I beg them to do it.
Another way to form a habit quicker is by changing your environment.
Who and what is around you determines the quality of your behavioural output more than your motivation.
If you want to change for the better, find a setting in which your desired habits are seen as normal.
Behavioural change is a double-edged sword; however, if you enter a disempowering environment, you are also more susceptible to the bad habits of that particular social setting.
Hammer this into your brain: If you want to change, change the things that are around you.
Below are examples of how to apply this life rule:
|Desired Behavioural Change||Environmental Modification|
|Become a better public speaker||Join Toastmasters|
|Get in shape||Get a personal coach|
|Stop drinking alcohol||Go to AA meetings|
|Learn a new language||Move to the country where they speak that language.|
Where To Go From Here
Whether it takes you 66 days, 21 days, or 72 hours to form a new habit, all forms of change start with a decision to become more than you were a moment ago.
Habit formation is a skill like any other, the more you practice, the better you get.
No matter what hand life dealt you, you can ALWAYS fix the things that you do every day.
If you are not where you want to be in life, start now to take control of the things you actually have control over. I promise you that you will alter the trajectory of your life for the better.
Do You Want To Change?
Suppose you want to learn more about the science of breaking bad habits and creating good ones. In that case, I recommend that you jump on a free discovery call with me to discuss how habit coaching can help you to live a richer life.
- How Long Does it Actually Take to Form a New Habit? (Backed by Science) [Web log post]. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://jamesclear.com/new-habit#:~:text=On%20average%2C%20it%20takes%20more,to%20form%20a%20new%20habit.
- Sorry about the phrasing.
- Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C.H.M., Potts, H.W.W. and Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol., 40: 998-1009. DOI:1002/ejsp.674