01 November 2021

How long does it take to change a habit? – the myth, the facts and the best techniques

When was the last time you attempted to change a habit? My guess is for many of us coming out of lockdown the temptation will be there to make some changes…

So how long does it take? There is a popular myth that repeating a new habit daily for 21 days does the job, but where does that come from, and is it true? Spoiler alert – not really, but this week we find out for sure, but first

   Thought for the day

        Anyone who enjoys inner peace 

        Is no more broken by failure 

        Than he is inflated by success. 

        He is able to fully live his experiences 

        In the context of a vast and profound serenity, 

       Since he understands experiences are ephemeral 

       And that it is useless to cling to them.

                                Matthieu Ricard

For decades I have heard people – both professionals and others, say we could change anything by repeating the new pattern daily for 21 days. Having worked in intense settings for years where many people felt their actual lives depended upon changing lifestyle habits, it amazed me how quickly some people accomplished change, and how others never managed it at all. So the generic “21 days” never seemed quite right. 

In my own case, when diagnosed with advanced cancer I soon concluded eating a plant-based diet was essential to recovery. Literally overnight I transitioned from being a rabid carnivore to virtual vegan and never looked back; no regrets, no longings, no relapses. 

On the other hand, I have worked with people who laboured away for months until they finally shook off an old pattern and became securely established in the new.

So what about this 21 day myth? 

Where did that come from? 

Seems like Maxwell Maltz was the instigator. 

Actually, Dr Maltz is something of a hero having written the fabulously informative Psycho-Cybernetics way back in 1960 (most of the best self-help books are the early ones!) – a must read for anyone interested in how the active mind works and how to use it to best effect. 

Maxwell was a cosmetic surgeon who progressed to become a psychologist :) 

He observed his patients and noticed it generally took about 3 weeks to adjust to new things like cosmetic surgery or moving into a new house. 

So based on his clinical experience of people getting used to new things rather than deliberately choosing to break a habit, the “21 day myth” somehow came into being. 

What then does the research say? 

One might imagine a lot of effort has been put into investigating this matter as it seems so crucial to personal development, healing, recovery and a good life in general. Yet curiously, there is not much solid research and the few articles are from years back…

A 2012 study found 10 weeks, or around 2.5 months to be the average for most people.  

Gardner B, Lally P, Wardle J. Making health habitual: the psychology of 'habit-formation' and general practice. Br J Gen Pract. 2012;62(605):664-666. 

A 2009 study probed more deeply and found a wide range was required to establish the change - from 18 to 254 days, with 66 days being the average. This seems to match my own clinical experience; it is variable and for some can take a long time. 

Lally P et al. How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 40, 998–1009 (2010)

The actual time will be affected by our motivation, how long we have had the old habit, how strongly we are attached to the old habit, the advantages and disadvantages of both the old and new habit, and very importantly, what opposition or support we garner from those around us.

Happily, this 2009 research did demonstrate missing one opportunity to perform the new behaviour did not materially affect the habit formation process, and consistent repetition does eventually get you there.


A. From my own experience…

Read and apply the steps set out in The Mind that Changes Everything

B. From the 2012 study :

1. Decide on a goal you would like to achieve for your health.

2. Choose a simple action that will get you towards your goal which you can do on a daily basis.

3. Plan when and where you will do your chosen action. Be consistent: choose a time and place you encounter every day of the week.

4. Every time you encounter that time and place, do the action.

5. It will get easier with time, and within 10 weeks you should find you are doing it automatically without even having to think about it.

6. Congratulations, you have made a healthy habit!

It may be helpful to write out a plan – the first step towards commitment...

My goal (e.g. ‘to eat more fruit and vegetables’) _________________________________________________

My plan (e.g. ‘after I have lunch at home I will have a piece of fruit’)

(When and where) ___________________________ I will ___________________________

Some people find it helpful to keep a record while they are forming a new habit. This daily tick-sheet can be used until your new habit becomes automatic. You can rate how automatic it feels at the end of each week, to watch it getting easier.

Happy days…

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