21 Days To A New You? – The Reality of Habit Formation

Can you form new habits in just 21 days?

Everyone knows that it takes 21 days to form a new habit – but where does this convenient ‘one size fits all’ figure come from and how can we all be the same as each other?

Well it actually started way back in the 1950’s when some chap called Dr Maltz observed that his patients would take a minimum of 21 days to get used to cosmetic surgery or the loss of a limb.

Of course this figure of 21 days was based just on what he saw and even then he said it was the MINIMUM amount of time taken.

Somewhere along the line, in an attempt to sell self-help programs and life coaching the 21 day ‘promise’ was adopted by guru’s and dished up to the general public.

In fact, even just doing my research for this article churned out several different timescales for effective habit formation – 21, 28, 30 days.

All nice, convenient, tangible numbers.

What a great thing though – the ability to fix your flaws in just 3-4 weeks?

It can’t fail!

Except it does – nearly every time.

After all, is everyone lean, fit, healthy, rich, organised?



Running on auto-pilot

Habits work as they ‘just happen’ with very little conscious thought.

Think about your morning routine, it’s likely that it rarely changes.

You wake up, have a pee, boil the kettle etc etc all without even thinking about it.

This is perfectly normal of course and we’re designed to function on habits.

Imagine if everything we did required conscious thought!?

You would quickly run out of brain power for work, creativity and thinking.

Habits allow your conscious mind to be relatively burden free and full of processing power for you to assign to the things that really need it.


The science bit

New pathways are created in your brain and every time that habit is practiced, the pathway is reinforced and becomes more natural and automatic the next time.

It’s like walking through a field of long untrodden grass.  At first it’s really hard work as you drudge through and you become easily exhausted.

But each time you walk that path, the grass becomes flatter and after a period of time you have a nice flat path that requires little or no effort at all to navigate down.


How long WILL it take you?

Hopefully by now you already know the answer, which is that there isn’t an answer.

Not one that will fit every person, every situation, every time.

A more complex or intricate task will take much longer than something simple & straight forward.

It will require more repetitions and may even need to be broken down into separate parts and built upon over time.

Assuming the habit being attempted is the same, no two people are identical and their unique differences will influence the time taken to adopt it.

A person’s age can influence habit adoption significantly.  Sadly our brains ability to form new pathways deteriorates as we age.

Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

Of course, it will just take a little bit longer than it would if you were a young pup still!

The reality of the habit formation timescale was investigated by Dr Lally et al in 2009.

They found that it could be anything from 18 to 254 days!

254! – That’s 8 months!

Chances are most people would choose to give up long before they get anywhere near that long.


Why is it so difficult?

It has been shown that creating a new habit is significantly easier than breaking an existing one.

This is because the mental pathway in the brain never actually goes away.

It’s just dormant and can easily be re-activated.

Take smoking for example.  It is not uncommon for ex-smokers to start again, even after years of not having a single cigarette.

These mental pathways are like the gutters in the bowling alley.

They’re always there and once the ball rolls into them it will automatically follow the pre-set path.

This can apply to skills as well as habits too.

Like playing an instrument or remembering lines from a song you haven’t heard for years.


Old vs New – Making or breaking a habit?

The easiest way to break a bad habit is not to.

Focussing on creating a NEW and alternative habit is much easier.

The new habit will eventually replace the old one.

It’s much easier to focus on eating vegetables with every meal than it is to stop yourself snacking for example.

Often the habit we are trying to break is actually something we don’t want to stop doing.

Comfort eating for example is an emotional dependency and can’t be dealt with by just eating vegetables.

A better strategy would be to find a NEW habit for dealing with emotional issues.

I will cover the pro’s, con’s and best ways to implement new habits in a future post.

The key thing to remember is that forming a habit takes time.

It could be a short space of time or it could be a long time.

The sooner you are able to recognise and be comfortable with that, the easier it will be to see it through.

If at first you don’t succeed then dust yourself down (don’t berate yourself), learn from it and try again.

Repeat as required.

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