How Long Does It Take To Form A Habit?

If you were to ask, how long does it take to form a habit? You would not get a straight answer.

Many people mistakenly believe that it takes 21 days to form a habit, a number based on the research carried out by Maxwell Maltz in the 1950s. Maltz was a plastic surgeon.  His book ‘Psycho-Cybernetics’ records his findings on how long after facial surgery it took his patients to get used to their new features. For example, if someone had a nose job.  He wrote that ‘it requires a minimum of 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell’.


21 Days Misunderstood

As a result, many people adopted the idea that it took 21 days to form a habit. In fact, books have been written quoting this number. However, what many people did not realise was that Maltz had said ‘a minimum of about 21 days’

It’s easy to see where the confusion began and that once misunderstood, it gathered momentum. Many people believed that 21 days would see a change in their behaviour. Imagine their frustration when their new habits did not stick within that time frame. So how long does it take to form a habit?


So, What’s The Real Number?


In 2009 research into habits was undertaken by Phillippa Lally and her colleagues from the Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Centre published in the European Journal of Social Psychology. Their conclusion was that it took an average of 66 days to form a new habit, that is, the length of time it took people to perform an action automatically.

Like Maltz before them, the study states that it takes an average of 66 days to form a habit. But, of course, that means that there are variables on either side.


The Key Factors For Creating A Habit


Creating a habit, or indeed breaking a habit, is associated with four factors:

  1. The Cue A trigger will initiate the behaviour with the prediction that
    there will be a reward
  2. Cravings These are individual preferences that create a motivational
    force or desire
  3. Response The action takes place, which in time becomes automatic
  4. Reward This is the end result, the actual satisfaction of the craving

All of the above factors have to be present to create a habit.


There Is No Set Time-Frame


In James Clear’s book Atomic Habits, he states that habits are formed based on the frequency and not time. In other words, it is not how LONG it takes to form a habit but how MANY repetitions are required.

One of the best ways to keep repeating something is to practice it and make it as easy as possible. In fact, the smaller the effort, the more likely we are to do something. This can apply to all types of habits.

James Clear highlights the importance of visual clues, creating the right environment and adopting a two-minute rule.


Visual Clues


Prompts and reminders can help when looking to form a habit. For example, say you want to eat more fruit.  If you place a bowl of delicious fruit on a kitchen counter, you’re more likely to eat it.  But, if the fruit sits in the fridge out of sight, you’re less likely to make an effort.

If you want to start reading more, then placing a book on your bedside table or by your favourite armchair will prompt you to pick up the book – even if it is to read just one page a day. After all, what’s important is that some activity takes place. The easier, the better, especially at the beginning.


The Right Environment


Different environments make us act in different ways and, in effect, help us to form a habit. For example, our habit of whispering in churches and libraries is based on the location.

Working from home can be challenging, and it’s so easy to get distracted and procrastinate. So at the end of each workday, I clear my desk, leaving only my computer, notebook, and pen. This means that I am ready to start work straight away when I sit down each morning. This has had a significant impact on my productivity.


A Stable Environment


If I was to work in any other area of the house, I am sure that I would not settle so easily and quickly into my workday.

As James Clear says, ‘a stable environment where everything has a place, and a purpose is an environment where habits can easily form’.


The Two-Minute Rule


This is a great technique.

Setting up a new habit can be pretty daunting, so James Clear suggests that each new habit should start small. In fact so small it should only take two minutes to do.

It is actually quite impressive what can be achieved in just two minutes. There is no arduous effort required and no massive investment in time. It is a great starting block. As the habit becomes more established, the desire to do more will increase.

In his book ‘Mini Habits’, Stephen Guise shared how he started his exercise routine by committing to doing 1 push-up a day.  From there, he built an exercise habit that he has kept to ever since.


The Benefit of Not Having a Time-Frame


Suppose the general consensus was that it takes 21 days to form a habit.  In that case, the people who did not achieve this could believe that they were doing something wrong or were incapable of keeping to anything and just giving up.

Practising some habits can take a while before any benefits are seen. For example, losing weight. We may eat healthily for a few days, but the impact of our healthy eating may not start to see results until much further down the line.


Have a Vision of The Outcome


If you have a vision of what the outcome could be, that builds momentum. It also means that if you miss a day, you’re not going to feel as if the effort made to date is wasted.  Instead, you can just pick it up again on the following day.

I believe that this takes the stress out of having to achieve something in a set time frame. Different people will have different results within different timescales.

There is no one size fits all!


Summary


So, the idea that a habit can be formed in 21 days is possible.  But in the majority of cases, it takes longer. The average timescale is more like 66 days if the research stands up.

However, judging a habit by the number of days it takes to form is perhaps a mistake. Everybody develops habits in different ways and over different time periods. I noticed that the research by Phillippa Lally and her team says, on average, 66 days, so this is also not a hard and fast rule.


Practice Makes Perfect


Many different factors can affect how long it takes to form a habit.  There are:

  • Environment
  • Motivation
  • Willingness to change

In my view, the only way to look at changing behaviour is to continually practice something until it becomes second nature.

What works for me may not work for you.

Have you tried to change your habits? I would love to hear what type of habits you have tried to create and how long it took you. Please comment below.




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About the author Alison

A qualified UK based coach with 30 years of experience in personal development.

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