21 Days to Form a Habit?

- POSTED ON: Feb 05, 2013

The notion that true Habits,


... Behaviors that automatically persist even in the face of major life upheavals and adversities ...

can be forged in 21 days
flies in the face of reality

Where did that idea come from?

In 1960 Maxwell Maltz, a cosmetic surgeon, reported that it took 21 days for amputees to stop feeling phantom limb pain. Maltz then said that consciously cultivating a new behavior for just 15 minutes a day for 21 days could create a habit. 

However, a 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology looked at the time it took for subjects to "automate" an eating, drinking or exercise behavior "carried out daily in the same context"—i.e., a habit. Using examples such as the time it took to automatically drink a glass of water after waking, or to do 50 sit-ups before breakfast, they concluded that it took participants between 18 and 254 days for these behaviors to happen "automatically."

There’s quite a lot of time between 18 and 254 days. That study didn't control for the real-life upheavals that tend to get in the way of our very best intentions, and the behaviors they chose to study are so minor in scope, it seems like their results would not even apply to the real world. Especially not to the prospect of cultivating an entirely new eating lifestyle, which involves many new and complex behaviors and choices.

Ex-smokers know quite a lot about how long it takes to make or break a habit. According to the National Institutes of Health, nicotine's physical withdrawal symptoms are usually over within a week. But any ex-smoker will tell you, the fight to break the habit of smoking, and cultivate the habit of not smoking, lasts much longer.

Most smokers have difficulty quitting. They commonly report that the first few weeks are truly miserable, with a nearly constant, conscious battle not to smoke. As time goes by, the battles became less frequent, but even two to three years after quitting, they still have occasional moments or circumstances when they have to consciously fight the urge to light up. And even if someone who hasn’t smoked for many years, lites up again, they're back to a pack a day in no time.

Changing eating behaviors and creating new eating habits takes an awfully long time. While a some people might be able become comfortable with a new behavior in just 21 days, ordinarily, habit formation takes years of consciously reminding ourselves of our new choices.

While it can seem tedious to keep our new eating behaviors in regular focus for several years – or more - by continually and consistently reminding ourselves, it is a price most of us have to pay in order to establish habits involving new eating behaviors.

Leave me a comment.

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Existing Comments:

On Feb 05, 2013 jethro wrote:
It's clear that you have to be on guard everyday to implement a new habit. BTW, I'm sorry the 49ers lost. But don't feel so bad. I'm a Jets fan and I've suffered a lot with no relief in sight.

On Feb 07, 2013 Dr. Collins wrote:
             Thanks Jethro, I think my husband will recover ... eventually.

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