Friday, May 03, 2013
I used to think, like a lot of people out there, that it took 21 days in order to have a new behaviour become a habit. Well, it turns out that it's a myth, perpetrated by a plastic surgeon turned psychologist named Dr. Maxwell Maltz.
In the preface to his 1960 book, ‘Psycho-cybernetics’, he wrote:
‘It usually requires a minimum of about 21 days to effect any perceptible change in a mental image. Following plastic surgery it takes about 21 days for the average patient to get used to his new face. When an arm or leg is amputated the “phantom limb” persists for about 21 days. People must live in a new house for about three weeks before it begins to “seem like home”. 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.’ (pp xiii-xiv)
However, in the last few years, other psychologists have begun to question his blanket application to all other types of habits, reasoning that experience with plastic surgery doesn't necessarily extrapolate to other habit-forming changes and the plural of anecdote is not data.
So they did their own rigourous study. Participants performed a self-chosen health-promoting dietary or activity behaviour (e.g. drinking a glass of water) in response to a once-daily cue (e.g. after breakfast), and gave daily self-reports of how automatic (i.e. habitual) the behaviour felt. Participants were tracked for 84 days.
They researchers found that it varied for their study participants for the habit to feel automatic. One took 18 days and another participant had not achieved the automatic feeling when the study ended at 84 days. The person did continue on their own, however, and achieved an automatic feeling at 254 days.
The researchers averaged out the time that most of the participants took to reach the feeling of a habit being automatic and the average was 66 days.
Knowing this makes me feel a little better, actually. I always used to think there was something wrong with me, or that I wasn't doing it right, that my new habit didn't form around the 21 day mark. To know that most people take an average of 66 days? Well, that's information I could have known YESTERDAY! -- to quote an Adam Sandler movie.
This will allow me to be more patient with myself in future and to realize that for me, it really does take more than 21 days.
Science is wonderful, isn't it? I love that an answer is only right until we learn more about it.