by Kathie England

How Long Does It Actually Take to Form a New Habit?

When you ask most people how long it takes to form a new habit, the odds are good they will answer, “21 days.” But that number is wrong, wrong, wrong!

The origin of this erroneous number is explained by James Clear in a blog that appeared in the Huffington Post last year. Follow this link for the details:

Clear gives the history of the number 21 that was based on the observations of a plastic surgeon, Maxwell Maltz, in the 1950s. Those who spread this inaccurate number didn’t even quote Maltz accurately. He said it took a minimum of 21 days, but the word “minimum” somehow disappeared through the years as one self-help guru after another expounded on the 21 days thesis.

Health psychology researcher, Phillippa Lally, at University College London, published the results of her study in the European Journal of Social Psychology. Lally and her colleagues found that it actually takes an average of more than two months (66 days) for a new behavior to become automatic. The range was from 18 to 254 days.

Clear stresses these points about finding inspiration in the long road:

  • Frist, there is no reason to get down on yourself if you try something for a few weeks and it doesn’t become a habit.
  • Second, you don’t have to be perfect. (Give yourself permission to make mistakes because those mistakes actually have no measurable impact on the development of long-term habits as long as you get back on track quickly.)
  • Third, embracing longer timelines can help us realize that habits are a process and not an event.

I frequently share this information with clients when they set out to create a new habit. I share it in presentations and ask for a raise of hands for people who’ve heard it takes only 21 days to create a new habit.

My learning from reading Clear’s article is that it will take many times for the population at large hearing the real numbers (an average of 66 days with a range of 18 to 254 days) before they replace that old, inaccurate memory of 21 days.

That’s why I decided it was important to post this information in my own blog. I hope you’ll read Clear’s article and then be gentle on yourself as you strive to create new habits with the knowledge that developing new habits a process not an event.