How Long It Really Takes to Form a New Habit, Backed by Science

Maxwell Maltz was a plastic surgeon in the 1950s when he began noticing a strange pattern among his patients. When Dr. Maltz would perform an operation — like a nose job, for example — he found that it would take patients about 21 days to get used to seeing their new face. Similarly, 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 adjusting to the new situation.

These experiences prompted Maltz to think about his own adjustment period to changes and new behaviors, and he noticed that it also took himself about 21 days to form a new habit. Maltz wrote about these experiences and said, “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 an blockbuster hit, selling more than 30 million copies.

And that’s when the problem started.

You see, in the decades that followed, Maltz’s work influenced nearly every major “self-help” professional from Zig Ziglar to Brian Tracy to Tony Robbins. And as more people recited Maltz’s story — like a very long game of “Telephone” — people began to forget that he said “a minimum of about 21 days” and shortened it to, “It takes 21 days to form a new habit.”

That’s how society started spreading the common myth that it takes 21 days to form a new habit (or 30 days or some other magic number). It’s remarkable how often these timelines are quoted as statistical facts. Dangerous lesson: If enough people say something enough times, then everyone else starts to believe it.

It makes sense why the “21 Days” Myth would spread. It’s easy to understand. The time frame is short enough to be inspiring, but long enough to be believable. And who wouldn’t like the idea of changing your life in just three weeks?

The problem is that Maltz was simply observing what was going on around him and wasn’t making a statement of fact. Furthermore, he made sure to say that this was the minimum amount of time needed to adapt to a new change.

So what’s the real answer? How long does it actually take to form a new habit? Is there any science to back this up? And what does all of this mean for you and me?

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The Lasting Power of Slow Gains

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You’ll never walk into the gym and hear someone say, “You should do something easy today.” But after ten years of training, I think embracing slow and easy gains is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned.

In fact, this lesson applies to most things in life. It comes down to the difference between progress and achievement.

Let me explain:

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The Science of Why It’s OK to Fail at Your New Year’s Resolution

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New Year’s resolutions may be losing popularity. Only about a third of Americans made New Year’s resolutions for 2014, down 10% from just two years ago, according to a CBS News poll.

Maybe people have wised up to the fact that most resolutions don’t succeed or think there’s a better way to embark on habit changes and goals than this annual tradition.

That doesn’t mean New Year’s resolutions are completely useless. Let’s take a step back and look at the science of why New Year’s resolutions still make sense, how to make them stick, and why it’s okay if you fail.

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5 Reasons You Don’t Do What Really Makes You Happy

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When we interviewed Dr. Stephen Schueller to learn about the basics of positive psychology, he also offered insights into how we sometimes stand in the way of our happiness due to misconceptions, biases, and a lack of mindfulness.

Dr. Schueller is a professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and member of the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies. (This is the second part of our interview, presented in edited highlights. Read the first part here).

1.  We’re too dismissive of relationships and positive emotions.

Dr. Schueller:

Positive psychology has a lot within it which is the advice our grandmother would give us:  How do we live a good life? You express gratitude, you maintain optimism, you practice kindness, you focus on relationships.

We often don’t think grandmother knows best and do our own thing, and that gets us into trouble. We often pursue things like money, bigger houses, cars — material possessions — when experiences are actually much more stronger determinants of our happiness.

 

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Designing Habit Hacks to Change Your Life

Each morning, my mother would hand me my daily Flintstones chewable vitamin before I left for school. But now that I’m an adult, she can’t tell me what to do — Mountain Dew and Starcraft all night!

Well, and less vitamins. Since moving out of my parents’ house long ago, I’ve also moved away from this healthful routine. Sometimes it takes effortful self-control to do things we know we should do. But not always. Habits can function as a force, shaping our behavior and negating the need for self-control.

So months ago, I purchased a jar of multi-vitamins and placed it in my cupboard to get back into my healthy vitamin habit.

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How I Ran a Quarter Marathon

imageIncremental progress is almost a law of nature; nevertheless, I’ve often fantasized about accomplishing a lofty but distant goal, pursued it for a month or two, merely made incremental progress, and quit.

Sometime in January, shortly after we first launched iDoneThis, I decided to pursue my long-standing desire to run long distances. I’ve started that many times.  Shin splints, knee pains, being in bad shape, busy life, you name it — each time something got in the way and I dropped the habit before accomplishing anything meaningful.   Not again.

This time I put a goal in front of myself: run Bay to Breakers — and I carried it through.  In 12 weeks, I went from being only able to run 1 mile at a time, to running 7.4 miles continuously.
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