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How long does it take to make new habits?

This is the time of year when we typically think about making new starts, taking on new challenges and tackling new projects.

Over the summer holidays we can get inspired to make changes or we might have even made some new year’s resolutions.

We might have decided we need to:

  • Get fitter

  • Quit smoking or drink less

  • Eat healthier food

  • Waste less time on Facebook

  • Become a better listener

  • Stop having negative thoughts

  • Be less stressed

  • Shop less, declutter the house

Whatever the challenge we set ourselves, how often do we start with determination to change something about our lives, only for our efforts to peter out a short time later.

So, how do we make real change happen?

Physiologists and common sense tells us we need new habits.

The thing is - Inspiration might get you started but habit is what keeps you going.

So how long does it take to form a new habit?

If you jump on Pinterest or according to some popular self-help gurus and advice columnist the magic number is 21 days.

Have you ever heard that it takes 21 days to form a new habit?

Unfortunately, this is an oversimplification based on dubious research from the 1950s.

Turns out, Dr Maxwell Maltz was a plastic surgeon in the 1950s who began noticing a pattern among his patients.

After he would perform an operation — such as a nose job — he noticed it would take a patient about 21 days to get used to seeing the look of their new face.

When a patient had an arm or a leg amputated, Maltz noticed that the patient would sense a phantom limb for about 21 days before starting to adjust to the new situation.

Maltz thought about his own behaviour and came to the following conclusion;

“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.”

In 1960, Maltz published that quote and his other thoughts on behavior change in a book called Psycho-Cybernetics.

The book went on to become massive bestseller, selling more than 30 million copies.

It’s easy to see why the “21 days” myth caught on:

  • It’s a catchy concept.

  • The time frame is short enough to be inspiring, and to feel do-able, but just long enough to sound credible.

  • It’s a lovely idea that you can change your life in just three weeks

Trouble is, the 21 days was the ‘minimum time’ that Maltz noticed was required for change.

And more importantly, the 21 days idea was just an observation of some very specific situations, not a general principle that can be applied to all and sundry.

It’s an example of how if enough people say something enough times, then everyone else starts to believe it.

More recently, a study carried out at the University College London, asked 96 participants to choose an everyday behaviour that they wanted to turn into a habit over a 12-week trial period.

They chose something they didn’t already do that could be repeated every day, for instance

  • “eating a piece of fruit with lunch”

  • “running for 15 minutes after dinner”

The study ran for a total of 84 days

  • every day the participants logged online whether or not they’d carried out the behaviour

  • and how automatic the behaviour had felt.

What were the results?

It was found that how long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances.

The study also showed it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit.

On average, it takes more than two months before a new behaviour becomes automatic — so that's more like 60 days than 21.

Whats the lesson for us?

  • we need to start with realistic expectations

  • it could take anywhere from two months to eight months to create new habits and build this new behaviour into our lives

  • It's also important to note that habit forming is not an all-or-nothing process.

The University College London researchers found that “missing one opportunity to perform the behavior did not materially affect the habit formation process.”

In other words, it's not the end of the world if you have a bad day or skip a day here and there. You can always start again tomorrow.

Some encouraging things to remember:

  • You can change habits if you persist with it.

  • It's important not to get down or be hard on yourself if you try something for a few weeks and it doesn't automatically become a habit.

  • It helps to keep reminding ourselves it's supposed to take longer than that!

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