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How long before my changes become habits?

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.
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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    Wow. Thanks for the info. I've always worked on the 21 day premise. It definitely gets easier for me after 21 days. lol
    1755 days ago
    Science is still developing - and people vary so much. I don't think I could ever pinpoint when good behavior becomes habit. I don't know if it does. Essentially - for me, I learn what is right and I do my best - day in and day out - and sometimes I lapse. However, I still already know what needs to be done - and I have to get back in there.

    1755 days ago
    OMG! I have enough trouble trying to stick with something for the 21 days. Now to know it could take nearly a year or more.... emoticon
    I do appreciate the info though. Thank you. emoticon blog.
    1755 days ago
    Thank you so much for this very interesting blog post. I have actually also been wondering how long it will take until these new behaviours come automatically. I guess we will all just have to give ourselves as much time as we need. Really good to know! emoticon
    1755 days ago
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