21 days to build a habit? How many times have we heard that ? Too many, and the truth is that 21 days is NOT how long it takes. I mean it might take 21 days, but it also might take 10, or 210.
Habit researchers have given us some interesting food for thought in recent years. In looking at habits and where this idea came from of the "21 day fix" (a-hem, I couldn't resist) we see that it came from an observation made by Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon who noticed that it took a minimum of 21 days for his patients to stop having phantom limb sensations. His famous quote was published in 1960 and since then has been perpetuated and expanded to include a myriad of behaviours outside of amputations and surgeries.
Why does it matter that 21 days is a myth? When we believe that it takes 21 days to acquire a new habit, and then find that our new habit after three weeks is still shaky we feel like we have failed; as though we didn't give it enough. The truth is there is little to no evidence that 21 days is a magic number for anything. It is nothing more than a legend.
So how long does it take? Dr. Gina Cleo says that it depends on two things: the difficulty of the habit and our psychological flexibility. This makes sense, doesn't it? How can adopting a simple habit like an extra glass of water after brushing my teeth and a complex habit like doing 50 pushups a day take the same amount of time to incorporate into our lives?
The second factor is our own flexibility with learning and practicing something new. The more set in my ways I am, the longer it may take to adopt a new change.
Phillipa Lally, a health psychology researcher at University College London, says the average time it takes is 66 days, but can be as long as 254 days before a behaviour becomes automatic. So cut yourself some slack and know that every time you repeat the habit you are strengthening your ability to do it again and again.
This leads us to the last and final theory on how long it takes to form a new habit - James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, says it isn't about how long, but how many times. How many times does a behaviour need to be repeated for it to evolve into a habit? That depends. This brings us back to: how hard is the habit and how psychologically flexible are you?
The takeaway here is, be patient with yourself as you work on making and breaking habits and know that repetition and consistency are the keys to unlocking a sustainable lifestyle of healthy habits.
You've got this.