Busting the 21 days habit formation myth
By Ben D Gardner, on 29 June 2012
Have you ever made a New Year’s resolution? If so, you may have been assured – usually by a well-meaning supporter of your attempted transformation – that you only have to stick with your resolution for 21 days for it to become an ingrained habit. The magic number 21 creeps up in many articles about forming a new habit or making a change, but little is known about the origins of the ’21 days’ claim.
Psychologists from our department have devoted extensive time and effort to find out what it takes to form ‘habits’ (which psychologists define as learned actions that are triggered automatically when we encounter the situation in which we’ve repeatedly done those actions).
We know that habits are formed through a process called ‘context-dependent repetition’. For example, imagine that, each time you get home each evening, you eat a snack. When you first eat the snack upon getting home, a mental link is formed between the context (getting home) and your response to that context (eating a snack). Each time you subsequently snack in response to getting home, this link strengthens, to the point that getting home comes to prompt you to eat a snack automatically, without giving it much prior thought; a habit has formed.
Habits are mentally efficient: the automation of frequent behaviours allows us to conserve the mental resources that we would otherwise use to monitor and control these behaviours, and deploy them on more difficult or novel tasks. Habits are likely to persist over time; because they are automatic and so do not rely on conscious thought, memory or willpower. This is why there is growing interest, both within and outside of psychology, in the role of ‘habits’ in sustaining our good behaviours.
So where does the magic ’21 days’ figure come from?
We think we have tracked down the source. In the preface to his 1960 book ‘Psycho-cybernetics’, Dr Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon turned psychologist wrote:
‘It usually requires a minimum of about 21 days to effect any perceptible change in a mental image. Following plastic surgery it takes about 21 days for the average patient to get used to his new face. When an arm or leg is amputated the “phantom limb” persists for about 21 days. People must live in a new house for about three weeks before it begins to “seem like home”. 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.’ (pp xiii-xiv)
How anecdotal evidence from plastic surgery patients came to be generalised so broadly is unclear. One possibility is that the distinction between the term habituation (which refers to ‘getting used’ to something) and habit formation (which refers to the formation of a response elicited automatically by an associated situation) was lost in translation somewhere along the line. Alternatively, Maltz stated elsewhere that:
‘Our self-image and our habits tend to go together. Change one and you will automatically change the other.’ (p108)
Perhaps readers reasoned that, if self-image takes 21 days to change, and self-image changes necessarily lead to changes in habits, then habit formation must take 21 days. Although ‘21 days’ may perhaps apply to adjustment to plastic surgery, it is unfounded as a basis for habit formation. So, if not 21 days, then, how long does it really take to form a habit?
Researchers from our department have done a more rigorous and valid study of habit formation (Lally, van Jaarsveld, Potts, & Wardle, 2010). Participants performed a self-chosen health-promoting dietary or activity behaviour (e.g. drinking a glass of water) in response to a once-daily cue (e.g. after breakfast), and gave daily self-reports of how automatic (i.e. habitual) the behaviour felt. Participants were tracked for 84 days. Automaticity typically developed indistinct pattern: initial repetitions of the behaviour led to quite large increases in automaticity, but these increases then reduced in size the more often the behaviour was repeated, until automaticity plateaued. Assumed that the point, at which automaticity is highest, is also the point when the habit has formed, it took, on average, 66 days for the habit to form. (To clarify: that’s March 6th for anyone attempting a New Year’s resolution.)
Interestingly, however, there were quite large differences between individuals in how quickly automaticity reached its peak, although everyone repeated their chosen behaviour daily: for one person it took just 18 days, and another did not get there in the 84 days, but was forecast to do so after as long as 254 days.
There was also variation in how strong the habit became: for some people habit strength peaked below the halfway point of the 42-point strength scale and for others it peaked at the very top. It may be that some behaviours are more suited to habit formation – habit strength for simple behaviours (such as drinking a glass of water) peaked quicker than for more complex behaviours (e.g. doing 50 sit-ups) – or that people differ in how quickly they can form habits, and how strong those habits can become.
The bottom line is: stay strong. 21 days is a myth; habit formation typically takes longer than that. The best estimate is 66 days, but it’s unwise to attempt to assign a number to this process. The duration of habit formation is likely to differ depending on who you are and what you are trying to do. As long as you continue doing your new healthy behaviour consistently in a given situation, a habit will form. But you will probably have to persevere beyond January 21st.
Benjamin Gardner and Susanne Meisel
Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., Potts, H. W. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 998-1009. (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ejsp.674/abstract)
Maltz, M. (1960) Psycho-cybernetics. NJ: Prentice-Hall.