Busting the 21 Days to Create a Habit Myth

Busting the 21 Days to Create a Habit Myth

We've all heard in the past that it takes 21 days to bust a habit. It turns out that is a fable of the Internet that just kept getting repeated.

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It Only Takes 21 Days to Create a Habit???

If you've ever heard that it only takes 21 days to develop a habit, it turns out that has been exaggerated, and misinterpreted by the Internet over the years (and if you repeat something over and lover long enough, people think it's true

Now, however, there is some psychological research on this question in a paper recently published in the European Journal of Social Psychology. Phillippa Lally and colleagues from University College London recruited 96 people who were interested in forming a new habit such as eating a piece of fruit with lunch or doing a 15 minute run each day Lally et al. (2009). Participants were then asked daily how automatic their chosen behaviors felt. These questions included things like whether the behavior was ‘hard not to do’ and could be done ‘without thinking’.

Although the average was 66 days, there was marked variation in how long habits took to form, anywhere from 18 days up to 254 days in the habits examined in this study. As you’d imagine, drinking a daily glass of water became automatic very quickly but doing 50 sit-ups before breakfast required more dedication (above, dotted lines).

Missing a single day did not reduce the chance of forming a habit.
A sub-group took much longer than the others to form their habits, perhaps suggesting some people are ‘habit-resistant’.
Other types of habits may well take much longer.
No small change

What this study reveals is that when we want to develop a relatively simple habit like eating a piece of fruit each day or taking a 10-minute walk, it could take us over two months of daily repetitions before the behavior becomes a habit. And, while this research suggests that skipping single days isn’t detrimental in the long-term, it’s those early repetitions that give us the greatest boost in automaticity.

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