The 21 Day Habit Myth

Monday May 18 | BY |
| Comments (14)

A few years ago, I was inspired by the concept that “it takes 21 days to form or break a habit.”

So, I created my own 21 Day Challenge.

The 21 Day Challenge was an online event where I encouraged thousands of people to take on or break three habits. Some people chose simple things like eating a green smoothie every day and going for a twenty minute walk. Some people attempted more challenging changes, such as adopting a raw food diet.

The event was a success, but I realized it was a mistake of mine to ask people to choose three habits.

Directing one’s attention on too many things at the same time makes it difficult to stick with any one item.

So, the 21 Day Challenge should have focused on only one habit.

The other thing that I started to question was does it really take 21 days to form or break a new habit? I used that number because that’s what I’d heard, but in my own experience I noticed that it takes much longer than 21 days to firmly establish a new habit.

In fact, my own experience leads me to believe that it takes at least three months to form a new habit so that it’s deeply ingrained inside of us. For example, everybody’s tried an exercise program and kept it up for 21 days, but 99% of the time it doesn’t last. To form a habit and keep it, or break a habit permanently, takes more time.

I noticed when giving up fats and oils in a diet that it takes at least 60 days for the taste buds to adapt to a fat-free diet. The same is true for sugar. Caffeine is also the same. In my experience, it takes about 3-4 months to break a caffeine habit. It gets easier with time, but for this new habit to be totally ingrained takes at least 3 or 4 months. To break alcohol habits takes even longer depending on how long and how much you’ve been drinking.

Where does this 21 day rule come from?

I did a little research and found that it came from Maxwell Maltz. Maltz published the blockbuster self development book Psycho Cybernetics, which sold more than 30 million copies and influenced an entire generation of self-help gurus like Tony Robbins and Brian Tracy.

Maltz was a plastic surgeon who noticed a strange pattern among his patients. After an operation he found that the patient would take about 21 days to get used to their new face. Maltz also noticed that his patients who had had an amputation would sense a fathom limb for about 21 days. This prompted him to say, “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 gel.”

Maltz said that it takes a minimum of 21 days for a new habit to form and then the next generation—the Zig Ziegler’s and Tony Robbins of the world—said that it takes 21 days to form a new habit as if it had been a rule all along.

Forming or breaking a habit in 21 days is a myth. According to the person who started it all, it takes a minimum of 21 days. In reality, how long does it take to form or break a habit? Let’s see what researchers have found.

There was a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology where a team of researchers tried to figure this out.

They took a group of 96 people and followed them over a 12 week period. Each person took on a new habit for 12 weeks and they had to report whether they did the behavior and how automatic it became. The researchers found that it takes more than two months before a new behavior becomes automatic.

The exact number was 66 days, but this was an average because in the group it took anywhere from 18 to 254 days before a new habit was formed. They also found that, “Missing one opportunity to perform the behavior did not materially affect the habit formation process.” So it didn’t matter too much if the person messed up every now and then. What was important was that they kept trying to implement the new habit.

What do we see here?

First, it doesn’t take 21 days to form a habit. Maybe some habits could take as little as 21 days, but most habits will take at least two or three months to form or break. Let’s get rid of this absurd 21 day rule. People give themselves too little time to adapt to a change. If you think after a couple of weeks this new habit ingrained in you, think again. You should give it more time (several months), for this new lifestyle to become automatic.

I think we should question these rules because they influence people.

Many people, myself included, were led to believe that you could change any habits in 21 days. We tried it and we thought that after 21 days this new habit could be broken or formed, and it didn’t work so we gave it up. We thought that the failure was our fault. In reality, we just didn’t give it enough time.

Think about everything that you’ve managed to successfully achieve. How long did it take you to get used to this new situation? Let’s use smoking as an example. For smokers, it takes at least a few months to get rid of most of the cravings, and then a few years to totally detox depending on how much they’ve been smoking. Likewise, a big change in life requires time to adjust. I know that when I moved from Vancouver to Montreal it took me several months to adjust to this new environment.

Let’s give ourselves more time to form or break new habits. I would say that 60 to 90 days is a minimum.

Frederic Patenaude

Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets. He lives in Montreal, Canada.

14 COMMENTS ON THIS POST

Comments are closed for this post.

  1. I have to agree that it takes time to develop habits. I also feel it is hard to break a bad habit unless you replace it with a new/better one … for example, if you want to quit drinking something (alcohol, coffee, soda etc.) then you need to start a new habit. So, if your in a restaurant and your server asks what you would like to drink, your automatic response should be water or whatever you plan on replacing the bad habit with. I use water for my example because that is what I want to drink more of. If your morning starts with drinking coffee, reading the newspaper/watching the news or getting on your computer and you want to become more productive then start a new habit of getting out of bed, making it then taking your shower and getting dressed. By getting your bed made and getting dressed your able to start taking on the days responsibilities. Maybe after your dressed go for a walk then come home and check emails or go to work. Of course what ever it is that you are wanting to change have something in mind to change it with. Then in a few months these things will be so automatic than if you go back to your old ways you will feel out of sync … I find this helps me and maybe it will help you as well.

  2. Some habits can take a lifetime to change. You have to constantly keep them under control and maintenance.

  3. Michaelb says:

    There appears to be some confusion between habit forming and physiological adaptation. (ie. taste buds noting something is sweeter tasting following a prolonged absence from sugar)

  4. Leila says:

    Hey Frederic, great article. I totally agree that it depends on the habit you’re trying to form or break – some are definitely easier than others. I’m thinking of taking up journalling again – you’ve given me hope that given enough time I can form the habit.

  5. Paul Palmer says:

    You are right on Frederic. I bought into that myth too, having read Maxwell Maltz. It does take much longer for certain.

  6. Dana says:

    I have only four words to say: THANK YOU VERY MUCH!!!!!

  7. Dana says:

    As in, what a relief…whew!

  8. Jacek says:

    I’ve known people who have quit drinking and/or smoking cold turkey and never looked back. I think it all lies in your individual character. Some people are just stronger when it comes to will power. I know several women who upon hearing that they were pregnant, immediately stopped smoking and consuming alcohol. Some resumed after having had their baby. Others quit for good.

  9. June Louks says:

    Thanks for the research on this Kev…and now that you mention it…from personal experience, in changing those deep seated mental habits, I agree!

  10. Ruth Daby says:

    So glad you addressed this topic – and the myth! We tend to run with the crowd and believe and pass on what ‘experts’ tell us. And frequently the experts just repeat what they have read or heard. 21-days sounds catchy and we fall for it. Sadly, for most of us we fall flat on our faces and start to think that there is something wrong with us. Thanks for ‘challenging’ the myth!

  11. I love how you weave a bit of historical perspective into each article, Fred. We can’t know where we’re going unless we know where we’ve been, right. Interesting findings – I’d always wondered about the origins of the 21day habit, especially when it rarely sticks in my experience.

  12. Susan R says:

    Your article makes so much sense. Do you have any further information on the ‘how to’s” of breaking a habit?. Say sugar addiction.

    Thanks

  13. Anita says:

    Hi,
    Why not go to the emotional cause for the habit? Then it just takes no effort at all, and there will be no controlling habits for the rest of ones life, which is very energy and time consuming. Plus that one usually change a bad habit for a habit that is a little bit better. For instance like switching from eating chocolate to eating raw chocolate, or raw desserts or nut butters.

    One has habits/addictions to suppress emotions that is uncomfortable. I was no success on raw food, which saddened me because I love raw food. Then I started feeling my stuffed down emotions, like anger, fear, rage and grief. Loads of crying, bashing pillows and screaming instead of pressing down my anger and then it will pop up when In unexpected situations and I would also be so very tired from this. It takes time and I have been doing this for 4 years and I still have a lot left to feel, like fear for instance, which I fear to feel! But I’m now very successful in my raw food eating, very seldom crave chocolate (which I usually had loads of every day) And my life is so enjoyable too! Ones law of attractions improves by itself when one lets go of suppressed emotions and beliefs that does not support ones desires.

  14. Luis Medrano says:

    It can vary for different people. I don’t think there is a set number of days to set a new habit. Mental attitude also plays an important role in the whole process. Cool stuff!

    Comments are closed for this post.