Have you ever heard the phrase “It takes 21 days to form a new habit”?
I’m sure you have. I’ve likely heard it hundreds of times.
Have you ever actually tried it though? How many habits have you formed by doing something for 21 days?
I’ve tried many things for at least 21 days. Heck, I’ve even practiced handstands every single day for 130 days! After that though I stopped. It wasn’t a habit. I didn’t continue doing it here and there or even at all. So what happened?
I recently read an article by James Clear called How Long Does it Actually Take to Form a New Habit? Like most of his articles, I really enjoyed it.
The phrase itself came from Dr. Maxwell Maltz. His actual quote came from his experiences around forming new behaviours and was specifically written as: “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.”
Not quite “It takes 21 days to form a new habit”.
Like many quotes it’s been shorted and paraphrased down to a simpler form and, unfortunately in this case, steers people in an unrealistic direction. It sounds nice, but it’s rarely successful.
So how long does it really take?
Jame’s article goes on to talk about a study by Phillippa Lally at University College London. The study revealed that it actually takes 66 days on average to build a new habit.
The average is 66 days but the variance was between 18 to 254 days. This is a far cry from 21 days!
In the world of fitness this hasn’t exactly been a hard conclusion to make through observing people’s patterns.
How many thousands if not millions of people flock to the gyms every new years? Of those, how many do you think build a strong habit after just one 1 month?
I don’t have any accurate facts on this but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was less than 10%.
Most of those memberships drop off after 3 months, still proving that a habit can take a really long time to be built.
What can we learn from this?
For me, it’s that there isn’t a quick fix. You may get quick results, but if you want them to last you’re going to have to dig in for the long run. If you truly want to change your life and build a new lifestyle, you’re going to have to focus on long-term.
As James concludes in his article “embracing longer timelines can help us realize that habits are a process and not an event”.
I’ll leave you yet again with my favourite quote:
“Never give up on a dream just because of the length of time it will take to accomplish it. The time will pass anyway.” ~ H. Jackson Brown
Have you struggled with the “21 days” concept? Share your experiences of habit building in the comments below.