I wanted to delve a little deeper into the old, “How many days does it take to develop a habit” conundrum, after recently hearing the oft-quoted “21 days” response.
At the time, I was talking about 30-day challenges that I quite frequently set for myself.
These challenges can be mental, emotional or physical in nature.
I happened to mention that more often than not these daily activities turn into a habit well before the end of the challenge, but I couldn’t pinpoint when the action I was taking actually became a habit.
Hence, the reply, “21 days” (and from a wide variety of sources too).
Now I’m not dissing anyone, as I too have heard of the 21-day phenomenon, and for some reason the figure 66 days also comes to mind.
However, for the life of me I couldn’t work out where I had heard either of these figures, and whether in fact there was any truth to them.
So, I had to investigate further and see if there is actually a specific number of days it takes to create a new habit.
Where Did The “21 Days to Develop a New Habit” Originate?
Have you ever noticed that 21 days is always quoted as a statistical fact?
However, I pretty much guarantee that if you were to question someone as to why they cite this figure, 99 times out of 100 they would be unable to offer a plausible explanation.
Although not strictly the same, this reminds me of an illusory truth effect – after being repeatedly exposed to false information you believe it to be correct.
Familiarity over rationality.
It sounds like I’m saying it’s not true, doesn’t it?
Okay, let’s get the 21-day facts out in the open.
I guess we can attribute the quote to American cosmetic surgeon and author, Dr. Maxwell Maltz.
It was mentioned in Dr. Maltz’s most famous creation, his 1960 publication, Psycho-Cybernetics, which has now sold over 30 million copies worldwide.
Maltz developed a system of ideas that would help to improve one’s self-image, and he claimed that this could lead to a happier and more successful life.
Dr. Maltz said, “It’s all about self-image. We have this “mental portrait” of ourselves and it is this mental portrait that defines who we are and what we believe in. Therefore, our self-image is the foundation upon which we build out personality”.
I digress somewhat, so let me get back to this 21-day business.
I mentioned that Maltz was a cosmetic surgeon, and he started to notice an unusual trait among many of his patients.
He would perform an operation, let’s say a rhinoplasty (a nose-job to you and me). And he found that on average the patient would take 21 days to get used to seeing their new nose.
The same could be said for amputees – Maltz noticed that his patients typically sensed a phantom limb for a period of time (21 days believe it or not) before they would adjust to their new physique.
Maltz then stated, “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”.
Please note his use of the words “minimum” and “about” in this sentence.
I think it’s also important to understand that when he said this, it had nothing to do with creating and developing new habits, but simply how long it took someone to become used to a surgical procedure (although in truth they didn’t have a lot of choice, the deed was done, and there was no going back).
However, somehow over the past 60 years or so we have completely forgotten about Maltz’s use of the word “minimum” and have now adjusted this to, “It takes 21 days to create a new habit”.
Additionally, I would say that Dr Maltz was simply making an observation and not stating a definitive fact.
Nevertheless, the rest (as they say) is history.
Where Did I Hear That it Takes 66 Days to Develop a New Habit?
I have to be honest and say I have no idea where I heard about the 66-day phenomenon, but it is a figure that is cemented in my mind, so some further research was required.
A study was conducted by Phillipa Lally, and other psychology researchers, at University College London in 2009.
Their aim was to figure out exactly how long it takes to develop a new habit.
The study followed 96 participants over a 12-week period. Each patient was required to choose one new habit, log whether they completed the activity, and how automatic it felt for them to do it.
The habits ranged from easy, drink a bottle of water before lunch, to something with a higher difficulty level, run for 15 minutes before dinner.
The results were analyzed and published in July 2009.
So, how long did it take for a new behaviour or activity to become a habit?
According to Lally the answer is an average of 66 days.
However, the formation of a new habit varied widely depending on a number of factors – the person, the activity, and the circumstances.
In fact, it could take from as little as 18 days up to a mind-blowing 254 days to instill a new habit.
Just in case you were wondering how the researchers could calculate that some habits take 254 days to create when the actual study was only 84 days long (12 weeks), they used the data they received to estimate this (don’t worry, it occurred to me too).
Once again, the formation of habits for the longer timelines will depend on various external factors.
Personally, I think rather than focusing solely on how many days it takes to develop a habit, you will need to consider a number of other components.
What I Learned About Habits & Goals From Dilbert
We typically create new habits, but have an ultimate goal in mind. I guess you could say the exact same thing about eradicating bad habits.
But, what has Dilbert got to do with this you ask?
I didn’t actually learn something about habits and goals from the satirical comic strip itself you understand, but more from the creator (writer and illustrator), Scott Adams.
In his book, How to Fail At Almost Everything And Still Win Big, Adams boldly claims very early on in the introduction that “Goals are for losers”.
Allow me to explain.
Adams says that when you set a goal you never account for the effort you put in to achieve that goal.
A goal can simply be defined as a specific objective that you are looking to achieve at some point in the future (and you are either successful in achieving this goal or you may even fail).
However, Adams argues that rather than focusing on achieving goals we should concentrate on what he calls the “systems”.
A system is basically something that you do every day, which increases your odds of happiness in the long run.
Once you achieve your goal you initially feel fantastic, on top of the world, absolutely terrific, until you eventually realise that you have now lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction – your systems.
You have a few choices at this stage:
- You can feel despair and hopelessness at the fact that the thing that was driving you is no longer in your life.
- You can celebrate your success until it bores you.
- You can set new goals and start the cycle again and enter what Adams calls “a state of continuous pre-success failure”.
He explains that by being a goal-setter or goal-oriented person you are either in a state of pre-success failure, or a permanent failure at the very worst if none of your goals are ever achieved.
However, as a systems person you are in a permanent state of success, as every time you apply a system you are doing exactly what you intended to do.
I think the main point that I understood from Adams’s view on goals is that systems are better than goals, and a system requires you to create good habits and break bad habits.
- Good habits = Efficient system
- Bad Habits = Inefficient system
A couple of examples that he uses in the book:
Your goal is to lose 20lbs in 2 months. However, by identifying and sticking to healthy eating habits you are creating a system (which involves developing good habits and breaking bad habits).
Your goal is to run a marathon in under 4 hours, so your system is to wake up early every morning and go running.
I do kind of get what Adams is trying to say, but I’m not completely sold, plus I also think he is missing something from his explanation of habits and goals.
Somebody Had to Go & Invent A Habit Formation Model
I would describe a habit as something that we automatically do without consciously having to think about it. This is why habits can be both good and bad.
You brush your teeth every morning without having to think about it and this is good for your dental and oral health. Then again you may bite your nails on a regular basis, without ever thinking about it. You know it’s a bad habit, but you do it without consciously considering the impact.
Well if you want to break bad habits or create new good habits it appears Dr. BJ Fogg has got you covered with the Fogg Behaviour Model.
Oh yes, Dr. Fogg has a very specific formula for creating new habits by focusing on 3 necessary elements:
Motivation – this is the desire you have to develop a new habit or break a bad habit. Your motivation could be to have a great looking body, which makes you start exercising and eating healthy food options.
Your motivation may be that you want to earn more money, so you take up a side-hustle, enroll in a new course, or decide to start your own business.
You may even desire to have a better relationship with your spouse or partner, which in turn motivates you to go home straight after work, make more time in the evening for your significant other, or plan regular “date nights”, etc.
Motivation is one of the most important variables in creating a new habit according to the Fogg Behavior Model.
And one of the biggest motivators when it comes to habits is rewards.
In fact, I would go as far to say that rewarding yourself in the early days of forming a new habit is almost critical.
With that being said, motivation alone for creating a new habit isn’t entirely reliable. I mean, we all know that motivation can vary from day to day, and in most cases, even from hour to hour, or minute to minute.
Ability – This is basically the capacity you have to form a new habit easily. Fogg breaks this down into what he calls the “simplicity factors”.
The 5 simplicity factors are:
- Time – It should take the shortest time possible on a daily basis to help form your new habit.
- Financial Cost – it should cost the least amount of money possible.
- Physical Effort – You shouldn’t have to put in a huge amount of physical effort in order to create a new habit.
- Mental Effort – The same can be said for the amount of mental effort you have to put into the formation of a new habit.
- Routine – Developing a new habit shouldn’t impact greatly on your current routine.
A prime example of the “ability simplicity factors” could be that you are looking to start a new blog and want to create a new habit in order to achieve this.
You want to write a blog post on a daily basis. If this only takes 30 minutes when compared to 2 hours you are more likely to form a new habit and be successful.
You don’t want to have huge costs involved when starting your new blog, such as expensive SEO tools or having to purchase specific software for your graphics.
Imagine if you could lie in bed and write your daily blog post on your smartphone. Much less physical effort than having to get out of bed, take a shower, get dressed, go downstairs, fire up the laptop, and then get started with writing.
If you’re writing about a subject that you’re passionate about and know well this involves far less mental effort than having to spend hours and hours researching an unfamiliar subject.
If you have to change your daily routines considerably in order to accommodate your new blog writing habit, well let’s just say this gives you an excuse not to continue with your new habit.
In fact, all the above scenarios could involve you finding a convenient excuse to give up on developing your daily blog writing habit if it adversely affects time, costs, physical and mental effort, and your routine.
Triggers – This is something I can definitely relate to, especially when it comes to bad habits.
I guess the best way to describe a trigger is that it is a prompt that will lead to a habit.
In terms of good habits, let’s say you want to go running every morning, so leaving your running gear laid out for the morning within eyeshot of when you get out of bed is a trigger.
The sight of your running gear, trainers (sneakers), shorts and t-shirt will typically prompt the mind into remembering that you need to get up and go for a run.
With that being said, often triggers are completely unrelated to a habit.
I mentioned that I had triggers that set off bad habits and trust me, there are quite a few.
I guess that an emotional trigger that I, and many people have, is to either gorge on unhealthy foods or drink alcohol when they have a bad day.
Your day hasn’t gone according to plan, you feel downhearted and frustrated, so you automatically turn to one of these less than healthy options, or a vice if you will.
You may view this simply as a way to cheer yourself up, but in truth it is a bad habit that is ingrained in your mind, and seeking solace in food or alcohol when things aren’t going your way is something that a lot of us are guilty of doing.
So, How Many Days Does it Take to Develop a Habit?
It may seem as though I’m skirting around the issue and not wanting to give you a definitive answer to the question posed in the title of this article.
And to be fair to you – you’re perfectly correct in your assumption.
However, the reason for my reluctance to provide an actual figure is because there isn’t actually one.
I hope you’re starting to see that from the “evidence” provided from far more superior beings than me, in the form of Maltz, Lally, Adams and Fogg, that it’s impossible to pinpoint an actual number of days it takes to create a habit.
There are just far too many factors to take into consideration.
In the last week alone I (think) I’ve managed to develop a new habit in the space of 2 days.
At the time of writing, the world is starting to return to some semblance of normality following the terrible times we have been through because of covid-19.
The coffee shops and cafes opened their doors once more at the beginning of this week, and I’ve managed to go for a large coconut latte for the last 5 days running, but after the second day I feel it was already ingrained into my psyche.
It had become a habit in just 2 short days, although this is because it had fed into my pleasure and happiness zones.
I can’t say the reopening of the local vegan cafe has had the same effect on me, especially when I’m not a fan of much of the cuisine on offer.
Don’t get me wrong, there are times I feel I should be more healthy, and I have often frequented this cafe, but the same happiness and pleasure signals in my brain are not alerted (I have a slight intolerance to dairy and sometimes I would visit this restaurant to “enjoy” a healthy breakfast that wouldn’t cause me issues with digestion).
I’m not entirely sure if I need to apologise, but if you came here hoping to find an exact number of days it takes to create a habit, then I’m sorry. You’re not going to find it.
I hope you now understand that the oft quoted “21 days” had very little to do with creating and developing habits.
The research performed by Philippa Lally and co. gave us an average of 66 days, but some habits took far less time to develop than this, whereas others took a lot longer.
The main lesson I’m taking away from Scott Adams is the famous quote, “Happiness is a journey, not a destination.”
Many habits are created in order to achieve a goal. However, if the activity is something that you enjoy doing, the habit forms much quicker, and often achieving the goal can then leave you feeling a little hollow on the inside.
The Fogg Behaviour Model initially made me chuckle, but there is a lot to take from it. Forming new good habits or breaking old bad habits will very much come down to your motivation, your abilities, and specific triggers.
In conclusion, all I can say is that it is impossible to calculate an exact number of days in order to develop a new habit, but you’ll never know the answer until you take that first step.
As always, I’d love to hear from you, so please drop me a line in the comments section below.
Thank you for reading.