Habit Formation: The 21 Day Folklore
How long does it take to form a new habit? If you’re like most people, the answer you will say without thinking is “21 days.” This time frame is built into the zeitgeist of our culture, though I’m not sure where it comes from insofar as experimental evidence. Let’s explore this a bit and see where the science takes us.
Willpower is rocket fuel
Changing habits does require some amount of willpower, especially early in the process. In attempting to change habits, many of my clients lament their “lack of willpower” if they are unable to adopt a new habit in 3 or 4 minutes…that’s sarcasm folks, but it’s basically an extension of what I covered in this blog post about giving yourself time to adopt a new habit. However, there is a grain of truth in that so much of our daily habits are on autopilot, totally free of rational inputs beyond process initiation. While some of you will be set to argue this with me, imagine you had to rationally work out every step of the process to get out of bed, get showered, and get yourself to work every morning. The fact that you’re both A) still gainfully employed and B) not mentally exhausted by 8:30am tells me that the vast majority of this process was free of serious deliberation of the alternatives…once in motion you stayed in motion. This is because there things are your habits and, like Newton said, objects in motion tend to stay in motion. Yes he was talking physics but it’s not too far off the mark regarding how we work with habits.
So changing a habit requires new processes, which requires deviations from autopilot, which requires willpower. The thing about willpower is that it is a finite resource: you can very easily use it up. There’s even a cool name for it: ego depletion. Further, there aren’t different silos that have X amount of willpower for different types of tasks. There’s one big pool that you fish out of and then when it’s all gone for the day, you’re more likely to throw caution to the wind with any tempting thing that crosses your path. Hence willpower is great for getting things started, rocket fuel, but it is not to be relied upon for maintenance of long term habits.
Twenty-one Days is a Myth
So if we’re going to gain a new habit, willpower will be used early on until the habit becomes a more integrated part of our routine, where less and less willpower are required to put things in motion, which at that point can be considered a habit. So how long does a habit take to form? As noted above, there is a cultural idea that a habit takes 21 days to form with daily practice. However, the research available doesn’t support that conclusion as absolute. Rather, the complexity of the habit desired determines the length of time to integrate said habit into your daily routine. From a recent study on habits, we have some clues as to what defines complex habits and their integration. The study had 96 individuals take on various habits and log their progress into an internet tracking site. They also tracked out automatic the behavior felt, known as “automaticity.”
So how long did it take? On average, across the participants who provided enough data, it took 66 days until a habit was formed. The complexity (or perceived complexity) determined how long a habit would take to be acquired. People who resolved to drink a glass of water after breakfast were up to maximum automaticity after about 20 days, while those trying to eat a piece of fruit with lunch took at least twice as long to turn it into a habit. And relevant to you, dear readers, the exercise habit proved very tricky. The study provided a “50 sit-ups after morning coffee,” habit, which still was not a habit after 84 days for one participant. However, something simpler like “Walking for 10 minutes after breakfast” turned into a habit after 50 days for another participant. I’d suggest this is because we are built to walk as human beings, but doing situps is not a requirement for daily living.
Break the Habit Down
So you can see, depending on the complexity of the habit, it can be 12 weeks or more before the habit has stuck. So how do we go from where we are to where we want to be? Like eating a 30 ounce porterhouse, we do this one bite at a time:
- Determine the outcome you’d like to achieve and the main habit you’d need to achieve said outcome.
- Break the habit down into parts. There parts need to be specific.
- Focus on the simplest part of the habit until you have achieved automaticity before moving onto the next part.
So instead of one big habit, you have many small habits. So while the overall habit might take a long time, the feedback of integrating smaller habits creates a foundation to build on toward larger habits. An example would be instead of “I’m going to stop eating all junkfood and eat more vegetables” as a habit, you’d break that down into a few separate habits that are specific and actionable like “I’m going to eat 3 servings of leafy greens each day,” or, “I’m going to limit myself to one snack per day at 3pm in the afternoon.” From there, determine which seems least difficult to accomplish and do only that habit until automaticity sets in. That way, each part might only take 20 days and the success of completion will further move you as the complexity increases. You gain self-efficacy, which means you’re more likely to keep up your efforts and succeed.
So 21 days isn’t set in stone, but if you break a habit down, you might only need to spend that much time on every component, and that’s the secret to habit integration over time.
Skyler Tanner is an Efficient Exercise Master Trainer and holds his MS in Exercise Science. He enjoys teaching others about the power of proper exercise and how it positively affects functional mobility and the biomarkers of aging.