A widely distributed and long-held belief tells us that it takes 21 days to form a habit. This premise has been circulating since the late 1950s and is attributed to Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a renowned plastic surgeon who noticed that, on average, it took his patients around 21 days to get used to their new look.
Over time, this belief took on a life of its own to the point that even to this day it is widely quoted as a fact.
It is a myth.
Much research has been done into trying to determine how long it takes to form a habit and the most common conclusion is that it takes as long as it takes.
And we – creatures of habit that we are – are all riddled with many of them.
As a Habits Coach, I am frequently asked how we go about bringing new habits into our everyday lives.
To best answer that question, I think it is helpful to spend a few moments discussing efforts to change habits that don’t work.
For most of us, attempting to develop a new habit involves intense focus on a change in behaviour. We put our time and energy into concentrating and applying the new behaviour – following the latest fad diet – and are thrilled to see some type of immediate results.
And yet, as experience has taught us, the results are not only fleeting, but in a short period of time we are back doing exactly what we have always done.
This is because our focus was entirely placed on a new behaviour which is not where acquiring new habits begins.
There is a very precise formula we must follow if we wish to successfully adopt and sustain new habits as part of our permanent behaviour. This formula is not new. In fact, it was expressed succinctly many years ago when Gandhi said:
Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.
We choose everything we believe to be true – particularly of ourselves. This is both good and bad news. It is good news because it can be easily accomplished, but bad news because until we change those beliefs that lie at the very base of who and what we believe ourselves to be, not only will we never succeed in adopting new and sustainable habits, but we will always revert to those very ones we long to change.
And over time, through the repeated experience of not sustaining the new behaviours we want, we run the risk of quitting trying.
And it is interesting how this happens. Repeated unsuccessful attempts at developing a new habit, e.g. becoming a non-smoker, cause us to start thinking will never be able to quit.
Soon this becomes a well-entrenched opinion that we now believe to be a fact. This new belief causes us to take action – quit quitting – and by repeating this process several times, we have now formed the long-term and sustainable habit of never trying again to quit smoking.
And as much as we hate this habit, we hate even more the notion of trying to change it. Instead, we try and find comfort in our own discomfort and pretend that we are okay with the status quo.
When we follow the formula for habit change we can and will both develop and retain the habits we want that will richly enhance our quality of life. When we deviate from the formula we expose ourselves to the risk of repeated disappointment which, sadly, can too easily become a habit.
I know the formula works as I’ve seen miracles occur with so many of my clients. As I’ve said before, the process is simple, but not easy.
And as we know, if it was easy to do, everyone would be doing it!
Let’s make a habit of meeting like this.