Myth or fact: It takes twenty-one days to make or break a habit.
If you said fact, you would be incorrect. Forming or breaking a habit is not as easy as continuing a pattern for 21 days.
The myth is a misconception that originated from a 1950s plastic surgeon by the name of Dr. Maxwell Maltz (James Clear). After performing cosmetic operations, Maltz observed his patients taking about a 21-day period to adjust to their new appearances. He then transferred his observations to his own life, and stated,
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.Dr. Maxwell Maltz
Notice the words minimum and about. “It requires a minimum of about 21 days…” Then, in the 1960s, Maltz wrote a book called Psycho-Cybernetics that influenced millions of people on behavioral change. His quote snowballed into the shortened version we recognize today, “it takes 21 days to form a habit.
Fortunately, there are experts like Phillippa Lally and Tom Bartow who discovered the facts behind habit formation. Lally, a health psychology researcher, led a research team at University College London on a study to reveal how long it takes to form a habit. Then there’s Bartow, one of the most high-producing financial advisors in Edward Jones’ history. He leveraged his athletic leadership experience and career success to create a model on what it truly takes to successfully build habits.
Lally and her team observed 96 people over a 12-week time period, each choosing a habit they wished to form. Every day for 12 weeks, the individuals reported whether or not the habit felt natural on any given day. On average, it took more than two months, or 66 days, for the behavior to become automatic. The minimum time period took 18 days, the maximum took 254 days.
I obviously didn’t research and share this information to discourage you from starting something new. Especially not something that will benefit you in the long run. Thanks to Bartow’s model there is a way to track your habit formation in three phases:
Phase One: The Honeymoon
The honeymoon phase is characterized by the feeling of “this is easy” (Jason Selk). The start of forming a new habit is usually the result of being inspired by someone or something. Eventually that high fades, and you move into phase two.
Phase Two: The Fight Through
The ease felt in phase one begins to dissipate, and you struggle to maintain your new reality. In order to get to the third phase, you first need to conquer two or three “fight throughs.” Proceed to these steps to make it past the “I-want-to-give-up” phase:
- Recognize when you have reached the fight through stage. “I have entered the fight through, and I need to get past this.”
- Ask yourself, “How will I feel if I do this?” and “How will I feel if I don’t do this?” Picture yourself succeeding, then picture yourself failing. Let the emotions fuel your next action.
- If you can picture the success or the failure in the moment, picture what your decision will look like long-term…Five years from now, ten years from now, and so on.
Phase Three: Second Nature
This is pretty self explanatory. Your habit has become second nature, you have gotten in the habit of ____________. But don’t get too excited yet. There are three common distractions that may keep you from staying in phase three.
- Discouragement –– You got inside your head, and you’re not seeing instant results
- Life events/disruptions –– Vacations, holidays, sickness, etc
- Ego –– You think you are conquering your goals faster and easier than those around you
If you happen to fall into one of those three categories, it’s okay to go back a phase. Going back a phase and conquering another fight through will only make you stronger in your routine.
If you read all of that, I’m guessing you are truly interested in starting something new in order to live a more positive lifestyle. Am I right?
Let’s work together on this. I did this research because I want to genuinely start a habit and stick to it. I am sharing with you because there is one aspect the research did not take into consideration: accountability.
My goal: Wake up by seven every morning, start my day with a devotional/scripture, then do yoga. I want to start a more consistent morning routine to increase my daily productivity. As William H. McRaven explains in Make Your Bed, you feel more accomplished when you start your day by completing a task. That’s actually how Andrew and I got in the habit of making our bed right away every morning.