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Habit formation: Is 21 days all it takes?

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Struggle to train consistently? Or stick to a healthy nutrition? It’s true, good habits are difficult to adopt. It takes more than desire for a habit to stick. Discipline, courage and hard work are required on a daily basis to keep them in place. However, what if we told you that the hard part of trying to turn a habit into a routine, lasts only 21 days, and after that, it becomes an automatic part of your everyday life? Too good to be true, right? Well…maybe. There is a lot of controversy surrounding the 21 day habit theory. Some insist it’s a myth, others argue it is the reason for their success. Let’s dig a little deeper and find out more.

The theory

The 21 Day Habit Theory was first introduced by Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon in the 1950s. He discovered that a patient who had, for example a face operation, would need 21 days to get used to seeing their new face. As well as when a patient had a leg amputated, the person would sense a phantom limb for about 21 days before becoming accustomed to the new situation. He came to the conclusion that “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.” Word spread and soon, the quote was shortened to: “It takes 21 days to form a new habit”…a term which stuck.

The truth

So, is the theory accurate and should you believe it? We can’t tell you that after 21 days of working on a habit, it will become embedded in your daily routine without ever having to worry about it again. In fact, a study in the European Journal of Social Psychology analysed the habits of 96 people over 12 weeks. On average, it is said that a habit takes around 2 months to become an automatic behaviour – 66 days to be exact. And for some can take up to eight months.

Should you ignore it altogether?

Yes and no. On the one hand it’s a good way of persistently working hard on something at the beginning. And who knows, maybe after the 21 days are up, your habit will stick. It’s also a reminder that habits do become routines, no matter how unlikely this can seem at times. However, you should not base your entire success on day 22. Forming habits is not an all-or-nothing process and it’s ok to mess up every now and then, as long as you keep trying. Forming a new habit depends on how difficult the habit is, the kind of person you are and also a lot of the time comes down to your environment and surroundings.

Here’s how you should use it

Commit yourself to working hard for those 21 days at least. The start is often the hardest so sticking to your habit for the first 3 weeks could make or break your success for the year. However, if on day 22 you still feel like you have to drag yourself out of bed, don’t worry. And don’t give up. It might take longer, but that time will pass anyway. You can waste it wishing. Or make every second count working. Habits take time and come down to daily commitment and hard work. It’s worth it. You will see.

Want to find out more about habit formation? It’s all on the Freeletics Blog.