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Let’s say you want to change something in your life–maybe you want to quit smoking, start a new workout regimen, or eat more vegetables. How long do you think it might take for that change to stick?
While historically, people have thought that it takes 21 days to create a new habit (or change an existing one), recent claims have pushed that number up to 66 days. In fact, the most recent significant study shows that it can take anywhere between 18 and 254 days to form a new habit–which averages to about 66 days.
In this article, we are going to look at some variables that impact where you might fall on that spectrum, including key factors that can help make or break habits. We will also look at some implications of this new information that tells us it probably takes longer than we once thought to form a habit.
But first, let’s look at why we initially thought it would only take 21 days to establish a new habit.
What You Will Learn
Does It Take Just 21 Days to Form a Habit?
Let’s jump back 60 years to 1960, when Dr. Maxwell Maltz wrote the book Psycho-Cybernetics. Dr. Maltz was a plastic surgeon at the time who had a passion for helping other people improve their self-image. He is also one of the first recognized authors in the self-help book genre.
In his book, Dr. Maltz shared his observation that it took a minimum of about three weeks (on average) for his surgical patients to let go of their pre-surgical perceptions of themselves and become accustomed to their new appearance.
People really took that statement and ran with it.
Since then, many speakers, authors, and others focusing on self-improvement have passed on this message–however, they have done so slightly inaccurately.
Dr. Maltz said it typically took at least 21 days for his patients to accept their appearances–not at most or exactly. And he said this based upon his own observations, not facts or scientific research.
But It’s easy to see why and how this myth could spread. The time frame is easy to remember, and it’s just short enough to help people think they can get through it, but still long enough to seem plausible. And doesn’t everyone want to make a significant change in their life in under a month?
So How Long Does it Actually Take to Form a Habit?
In the aforementioned study (and you can read the entire study here), Phillippa Lally, alongside three other researchers, dug deep into this question. Here are some key points to their study of the process of everyday habit formation:
How Does This Information Apply to Me?
This concept of a behavior becoming automatic (which is scientifically known as automaticity) is a critical component to forming a habit, as a habit is defined as “an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary”. And, realistically, rather than the three week time frame that was previously believed to be sufficient, it will more likely take you anywhere from two to eight months to form this sense of automaticity.
However, the range of 18 to 254 days shows that there isn’t one standard figure that everyone can count on. And there are a lot of factors that play into this range, including the fact that some habits are easier to build than others. For example, as you can probably imagine, forming a habit of drinking more water throughout the day will probably be easier to stick to than going to the gym every day before work.
Also, some people find it easier to stick to new behaviors than others. Dr. Elliot Berkman, who is the director of the Social and Affective Neuroscience Lab in the Department of Psychology at the University of Oregon, explains that there are three main factors that can impact the amount of time it takes to change a habit for each individual.
First, breaking a habit really involves forming a new habit, or creating a new response to a trigger. The key here is to have an alternative habit available so you can engage in some type of activity instead of just focusing on resisting your former behavior. For example, people who are trying to quit smoking are more successful if they use aids such as gum or some type of replacement behavior than using a more passive approach such as a nicotine patch.
The second factor is the amount of motivation you have to change. Those who want to form a new habit in order to live more in line with their own personal values are more likely to adjust their behaviors faster than those whose motivation is coming from external forces, such as societal or familial pressure.
Lastly, one’s mental and physical ability to form a new habit come into play. Habits that have been a part of one’s life forever are ingrained at a neural level, making them strong determinants of behavior. For example, if you have had soda for dinner every night since you were a child, replacing that with a healthier option is going to be quite a challenge. But, if you’ve never tried meditation before and you want to start practicing for a few minutes every night before bed, that would be an easier change to make.
Remember, the formation of new habits doesn’t stop old habits from existing–your new habits just have to become more powerful influences on your behavior. For instance, if your goal is to eat more vegetables, you can reach that goal without giving up your nightly post-dinner ice cream binge. In cases such as these, you need to think about the ultimate goal that your new habit is feeding into and adjust your lifestyle an appropriate amount in order to make sure your new habit makes a relevant difference in your life.
One common misconception people have about habit change is that if you miss a day, you’ve ruined your chances of being successful. However, the study found that this is not the case. The researchers found that skipping one chance to follow through with a desired behavior didn’t impact whether or not the habit was ultimately formed. This means that it’s ok if you mess up every once in a while, as forming habits isn’t a completely inflexible process–it’s more about your long-term consistency.
This is huge news for those who believe that missing just one day means all of your progress has gone to waste. Establishing new behaviors that you end up doing automatically doesn’t require perfection in your practice. It simply requires your best and most consistent attempt over an extended period of time.
And, to keep up your best work, you need to have a sense of intrinsic motivation to actually start engaging in the behavior. You have to enjoy the process of getting to your goal rather than just thinking about that final moment when your goal is achieved.
I’m sure you’ve heard the quote by John Lennon that says, “Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.” The same idea goes for the process of meeting your goals. Don’t discount your journey.
How Do I Stay Motivated For This Long?
Obviously, the beginning of your journey to forming a new habit is going to be more challenging than the weeks to come. Your new behavior will become more automatic as time goes on, no matter what it is. All this to say, this research that shows it may well take much longer than three weeks to form a new habit shouldn’t be a deterrent from making a change.
If you find it to be difficult to pick up new habits, you’re not alone, as habits are hard to change–but that’s why forming a positive habit is worth the time and energy that it takes to do so.
For example, once you’re used to flossing every night, or going for a morning run, you don’t have to use too much self-control to keep it up, but both of these habits will continuously improve your health.It’s important to keep in mind that people are almost always able to change a behavior once a habit has been identified that they want to change and they’re sufficiently motivated to do so.
But, staying motivated requires you to know your motive for making a change in the first place. When you’re thinking about your motives, ask yourself:
Asking yourself these questions will help you identify the reasons that you want to make some kind of change in your life and keep you feeling inspired to do so.
It’s also important to not dwell on the amount of time it may take to form a new habit, but rather think about the smaller changes you’re making in the process. Allowing yourself to trust the process and recognize when you meet smaller milestones will help you see your ultimate habit formation as being more attainable.
Final Thoughts on How Long it Takes to Form a Habit
Understanding the process of habit formation and the amount of time it takes to succeed will set you up for success. There is no shame in taking longer than three months to form a habit, or even four or five months. What’s important here is that you’re continuously improving your overall behavior and your daily habits because they play a critical role in building a positive daily routine and ultimately reaching your goals.
A large part of your success in establishing new habits will depend upon your ability to exercise your best efforts, keep track of your progress, and make adjustments accordingly. And remember, you won’t get to day 254 if you don’t get to day 1. Starting the process is the only first thing that you can do.
For additional information on building habits, check out these posts:
Finally, if you need help with building habits, then check out this nine-step blueprint that walks you through the entire process of creating lifelong habits.)
Connie Mathers is a professional editor and freelance writer. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Marketing and a Master’s Degree in Social Work. When she is not writing, Connie is either spending time with her daughter and two dogs, running, or working at her full-time job as a social worker in Richmond, VA.