Forming a new habit: the 21-day myth

The beginning of any month is a special time for me. Apart from the fact that it marks the start of a new month, with another chance to perform better than the previous one, it also marks the start of many 30-day challenges that I undertake, as most months of the year contain at least 30 days.

I have also, in some of my many monthly challenges, tried dropping a habit and replacing it with another, especially knowing that the popularly accepted 21-day habit cycle falls within 30 days of a month. Has my effort been a success? Not exactly, I’d think.

Over the past few decades, a lot of motivational speakers, and life coaches have trumpeted the magic number 21, which has an awesome catch to it: it is too short not to be inspirational. Imagine having to break any habit no matter how difficult it is in just three weeks, who wouldn’t want that? This is the reason why it has become so popular.

This idea was originally proposed by Dr. Maxwell Maltz in his book published in 1960, Psycho-Cybernetics. Dr. Maltz was an American reconstructive and cosmetic facial surgeon who noticed that whenever he would perform an operation – say a jaw surgery, for instance – it would take the patient about 21 days to get used to their new facial structure.

However, he also found that many of his patients continued to experience emotions of insecurity, dissatisfaction, and unworthiness that could not be alleviated by a new face, despite their belief that it would make them happier. Dr. Maltz was motivated to treat inner scars instead of only outward scars as a result of this. As a result of his observation, Dr. Maltz decided to apply the 21-day principle to his own life, and he noticed that it also took him a minimum of 21 days to change an old behavior and form a new one. He wrote, “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 gel.” His book became an instant success, and over the years, he influenced a lot of motivational speakers across the world such as Zig Ziglar, Brian Tracy, Tony Robbins etc., and this began the spread of the magic number, 21.


Does it really take 21 days?

A study was published by Phillippa Lally, a psychology researcher at the University College London in 2009, to find out how long it really took to form a new habit. 96 volunteers were selected for the study that was designed to last for 12 weeks. Each volunteer selected habits ranging from eating healthy to exercising regularly, and it had to be habits that they did not already do, that could be performed to a salient daily cue (e.g. eating a fruit with lunch), and that the cue had to occur every day and only once a day.

It was discovered that, on average, it takes 66 days for a new habit to become automatic, however, the range for forming a new habit was between 18 to 254 days. This is to say that there’s no magic number to forming a new habit as a lot of variables make that impossible. Some habits are easier to form than others, and some people take more to forming newer habits than others. However, any habit can be cultivated.


Cultivating new habits

Forming a new habit is not an event, but a process. This is the danger that 21-day cycle fails to address, because once the 21-day period is over, and the new habit hasn’t been formed, one could get discouraged and lose hope. But it doesn’t have to be so when one realizes that this is a journey, and even though you may not tell exactly how long it will take you to get there, as long as you remain on the path, you’ll arrive at your destination.

  • Be consistent: Do it daily. It may require some discipline at the beginning, but with time, it will start to feel natural.
  • Don’t beat yourself up: In the study, the researchers also found out that when you miss one opportunity to perform the behavior, it did not materially affect the habit formation process. And that’s great news. It means that you can mess up a few times on your habit cultivation journey, but don’t beat yourself up. Learn from your failures, and continue on your journey.
  • Attach a cue to your new habit: A cue is a sign or an action that leads to another action. For instance, dropping your keys at a particular spot once you open the door to your house. ‘Opening the door’ is the cue that tells your brain that it is time for you to drop your keys at the desired spot. It’s like when you get into your car, and you automatically put on your seat belt.
  • Reward yourself: One of the reasons some habits are difficult to break is because they are enjoyable which prompts your brain to release dopamine. Dopamine is the reward which strengthens the habit, thereby resulting to more craving for the habit. Create healthy rewards for achieving your daily habit. Once the brain begins to associate the pleasurable healthy reward to this habit, it helps strengthen it. For instance, you could take a delicious cup of chilled smoothie after your 15mins exercise every morning.


Getting inspired

The ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, once said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So whether it’s going to take you 21 days or 211 days, you still have to start. What is more important than trying to form a new habit, is the attitude towards it.

The great thing about the ‘21-day’ or in my own case ‘3o days’ of the month, is that it helps build consistency that I need to carry on beyond 30 days. So even if you want to go with a certain number of days, that’s okay. However, don’t treat it like an event, but like a process.

Eventually, you’ll achieve your desired outcome.

Sincerely, thank you for reading.

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