Debunking the myth of 21 Days to a New Habit

Have you heard the one about how you need to do something for 21 days before it becomes a habit?

It’s a myth.

There is no research that has found such a thing. I’ve scoured the psych literature and the internet looking for the source of this urban self-help myth and couldn’t locate any studies that provided evidence of the 21 Day claim.

I did come across Stephen at HDBizBlog website who has written about his own hunt for the source of the “21 Day Habit”.  He found that it all seems to stem from a popular self-help book from the 1960s by American cosmetic surgeon, Maxwell Maltz. Maltz’s theory of 21 Days was based on his observation that it usually took about 21 days for a patient to “get used to his new face” after facial plastic surgery. He also stated that a “phantom limb” persists for amputees for about 21 days after surgery.  

It all sounds a little bit anecdotal and hardly generalisable to any kind of change – especially since there seems to have been no research to support it in the almost 50 years since publication. I think I understand his reasoning though. He asks his readers to withhold judgement for 21 days – to just give the new behaviour a chance. I think this would work for some people but others might need to break it down to seven days or even a day or an hour.

That the ‘21 Days to a Habit’ claim is really a myth is in line with what we know from psych research – where there is no set time frame for changing habits because it depends on so many different factors. For example, from research in the area of addiction (because even with habits, I like to think big), psychologist Stanton Peele has developed five steps to change a non-serving habit into a healthy or life-enhancing habit.

1.     Find a positive, enhancing habit that is more important to you than the one you want to leave behind.

2.     Surround yourself with supportive people. And not just people who will nag you but people who will go for that walk with you, or drag you out of the house when you just want to sit around feeling fat and sorry for yourself.

3.     Make changes to your environment so that it supports you rather than undermines your changes. Yes, it may even mean moving, making new friends, or not buying the jumbo pack of chips at the supermarket.

4.     Get to know the new you. As you start acting differently, you’ll need to start thinking differently about yourself. It just won’t cut it to continue being your worst enemy. I always see it as becoming the person you always knew you were, but were too afraid to admit.

5.     Acknowledge and celebrate your efforts, no matter how small. Get the feedback you need to know that it’s worth it. Your ‘evidence’ will come in handy when you find yourself slipping back into the old habit. When you see that you’ve exercised six days out of seven and only scoffed one packet of Tim Tams in a week then you’ll know you’re making progress.

It’s all to do with belief and action. Rather than continuing the loop of habit – feel bad – habit – feel bad, you start believing you are the person who lives with these great new habits.  (This is in contrast to other approaches that put the focus on your seventh-day, binging self, and keep you stuck there as a consequence.) When you take action you are providing yourself with the evidence or the reality to support your new beliefs.

As you keep doing it, and finding ways to keep it going even when your body is screaming for a return to the safe and comfortable old ways, it becomes easier.

Back to basics: Daily habits log

I have a very simple daily habits log that I use myself. I’ve found that there’s no set time. It either becomes easy or you find another way. And you’ll do it in your own time – for some that will be a week, for others it will be six months. But you never know until you start. Now.

This week’s resource From The Work/Life Design StudioDaily Habits Log


Next in The Studio, Understanding How Change Happens

🙂 Thank you to Stephen at HDBizBlog for scouring the web in search of the source of 21 Days to a Habit.