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Birth of a Habit

How long does it take to form a new habit? How long should it take before it becomes a part of your routine rather than something you have to force yourself to do?

 Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick

Courtesy of Da Capo Lifelong Books

How long does it take to form a new habit? Say you want to go to the gym regularly, eat more fruit, learn a new language, make new friends, practice a musical instrument, or achieve anything that requires regular application of effort over time. How long should it take before it becomes a part of your routine rather than something you have to force yourself to do?

I looked for an answer the same way most people do nowadays: I asked Google. This search suggested the answer was clear-cut. Most top results made reference to a magic figure of 21 days. These websites maintained that “research” (and the scare-quotes are fully justified) had found that if you repeated a behavior every day for 21 days, then you would have established a brand-new habit. There wasn’t much discussion of what type of behavior it was or the circumstances you had to repeat it in, just this figure of 21 days. Exercise, smoking, writing a diary, or turning cartwheels; you name it, 21 days is the answer. In addition, many authors recommend that it’s crucial to maintain a chain of 21 days without breaking it. But where does this number come from? Since I’m a psychologist with research training, I’m used to seeing references that would support a bold statement like this. There were none.

My search turned to the library. There, I discovered a variety of stories going around about the source of the number. Easily, my favorite concerns a plastic surgeon, Maxwell Maltz, M.D. Dr Maltz published a book in 1960 called Psycho-Cybernetics in which he noted that amputees took, on average, 21 days to adjust to the loss of a limb and he argued that people take 21 days to adjust to any major life changes.1 He also wrote that he saw the same pattern in those whose faces he had operated on. He found that it took about 21 days for their self-esteem either to rise to meet their newly created beauty or stay at its old level.

The figure of 21 days has exercised an enormous power over self-help authors ever since. Bookshops are filled with titles like Millionaire Habits in 21 Days, 21 Days to a Thrifty Lifestyle, 21 Days to Eating Better, and finally, the most optimistic of all: 21-Day Challenge: Change Almost Anything in 21 Days (at least it acknowledges that it might be a challenge!). Occasionally, the 21- day period is deemed a little too optimistic and we are given an extra week to transform ourselves. These more generous titles include The 28-Day Vitality Plan and Diet Rehab: 28 Days to Finally Stop Craving the Foods that Make You Fat.

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Jeremy Dean
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