The internet is littered with misinformation about health, habits, fitness, and nutrition. If you are trying to adopt a healthier lifestyle and improve your habits, it can be seriously frustrating and overwhelming to try and figure out what is, and isn’t true out there.
So without further ado I would like to introduce a new series on the Adventure Fit For Life blog called “Myths & Mistakes”.
In this series I will address common myths about health, fitness, and nutrition, and discuss how these myths lead to common mistakes that people make when trying to adopt a healthier lifestyle.
So let’s hop right into our first myth!
Table of Contents
Fact Or Fiction?
The myth that this post will be investigating is that it only takes 21 days to form a new healthy habit.
What Does The Science Say About How Long It Takes To Form A New Habit?
An important study published in 2009 looked at how long it really takes to form a new healthy habit. A habit is defined as a behavior or action that is repeated often enough to become automatic.
And what does science say about how long it takes to form a new habit?
Drum roll please!"It can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit and an average of 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic." ~Gardner et al. from British Journal of General Practice Click To Tweet
Let’s do the math, shall we? 254 days is a little more than 37 weeks, or approximately 9 months.
That’s up to 12 times longer than we were promised by the 21 day habit myth!
Granted, 254 days is the higher end of the range, and it won’t take that long to form every habit.
I think it’s safe to say that the common belief that a habit takes only 21 days to form is a MYTH.
The truth is that MOST healthy habits take between 2 and 9 months to form.
Where Did The Myth Come From?
In the 1950’s there was a doctor named Maxwell Maltz. He made the observation that it took his patients at least 21 days to adjust to new situations.
For example he observed that a person with an amputated limb would feel “phantom pains” in that limb for roughly 21 days.
About 10 years later, Dr. Maltz wrote a book that included the following quote: “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.”
The book, called Psycho-Cybernetics, sold over 30 million copies and many people read it and began to talk about it.
Over the years, Dr. Maltz was misquoted time and again, and the 21 days to a new habit myth was born.
Why Is there So Much Variation In The Amount Of Time It Takes To Form A New Healthy Habit?
The difference between 2 months, and 9 months is huge! What’s that all about?
Honestly, there are a lot of different factors that play into how long it will take for a habit to become automatic. Let’s explore a few of those factors now.
The Complexity Of The Habit
Some habits are relatively simple, while others are more complicated.
For example, brushing your teeth before work is not an especially complex task – whereas there is a lot more complexity to driving a car.
While both of these actions can definitely become habitual, the simple task of brushing your teeth is almost certain to become automatic before driving a car does.
The Effort Level Required By the Habit
In addition to the complexity of the new habit, the amount of effort that it requires also plays a role in how long it will take to form a habit.
For example, the following healthy habits are relatively low effort:
- Doing 30 reps of a bodyweight exercise each day.
- Eating a piece of fruit for lunch each day.
Whereas, these habits demand a relatively high level of effort:
- Attending a spin class at the gym several times a week.
- Prepping a whole week’s worth of meals in advance.
When motivation is low, (which naturally happens from time to time) which habits do you think it will be easier to stick to, and therefore make into a habit?
You guessed it – the habits requiring less effort.
NOTE: You may also notice that the low effort habits are relatively smaller in size than the high effort habits.
This is further support for starting with small habits and building up over time.
The Frequency Of The Habit
Frequency of the habit is probably the most important factor when considering how long it takes to form a new habit."Habits form based on frequency, not time." -James Clear Click To Tweet
Frequency simply refers to how often you do something.
The more often you do something, the faster it becomes a habit. Makes sense, right?
So, just as an example, let’s say I wanted to form a habit of working out. And let’s assume that it hypothetically takes performing the habit 100 times (aka 100 workouts) to form this habit.
You could go about getting your 100 workouts in a couple ways.
First, you could choose to work out a little bit each day, every day of the week. That means it would take 100 days (just over 14 weeks) to form the habit of working out.
Or, alternatively, you could decide to do a little bit longer workout only 3 times a week. If you worked out 3 times a week, it would ultimately take you about 233 days (33 weeks) to reach 100 workouts and form a habit of working out.
So to sum up our hypothetical example – without changing the amount of workouts you perform, it would either take you 100 days, or 233 days, to form the habit of working out. The only difference here is the frequency (how often) you workout.
So the take away messages are:
- If you want to form a habit in the least amount of time possible, do a little bit every day.
- Think about forming a habit more in terms of repetitions than time.
Other Factors Affecting Habit Formation
There are a number of other factors that can affect how long it takes to form a habit, such as personal differences, whether the habit is addictive, and how supportive the environment is etc. But that’s a conversation for another post.
How Believing The Myth Of The 21 Day Habit Sets You Up For Failure
The problem with believing the 21 days to form a new habit myth is that it gives people unrealistic expectations.
21 days is 3 weeks. That doesn’t seem so bad, right? You can tough it out for 3 weeks no problem!
But say you’re working hard and those three weeks pass and you’re still struggling with your new habit. How would that make you feel if you really believed a habit could be formed in only 21 days?
You’d probably feel like a failure and wonder what’s wrong with you. You’d likely be discouraged and lose confidence. You might even give up on your new habit or at least really, really want to.
But what if you were given more realistic expectations about how long it will take to form a new healthy habit?
Knowing you were in for the long haul, you’d likely be a little more patient. If you hit 21 days and still hadn’t completely formed your habit – you’d know that there’s no need to panic, because you know it takes time!
So instead of quitting you keep working hard and are and you’re more likely to successfully form that new habit.
So that’s it, now you know. It takes roughly 2-9 months to form a new healthy habit.
Let’s put the nail in the coffin on the 21 day habit myth so it doesn’t give anyone else false expectations.
As a recap, you’re in it for the long haul. So to form a new healthy habit:
- Don’t panic if you don’t see results right away.
- Be patient (I know, I know – easier said than done, right?).
- Work on your habit every day if you can.
- Put in your reps. Practice makes habit.
And maybe most importantly, get started now so that in 2-9 months, your new habit will be automatic, making your day to day life much easier!
Finally, if you liked this post and would like to see more of these MythBuster-style posts, please sign up for the newsletter below!
This is just the first post in what will be a new weekly series – so look out for Myths and Mistakes on Mondays right here on the blog!