As the old saying goes, it takes 21 days…. but does it really?

In the 50’s there was a plastic surgeon by the name of Dr Maxwell Maltz, who observed his patients after both cosmetic procedures, like a nose job, and surgery where a limb needed to be amputated. In each case, it took 21 days for the patient to get used to their new circumstance. Whether it be getting used to seeing their new face, or adjusting to the sensation of a missing limb, it would take 21 days before they adjusted to their new situation.

His findings prompted him to look further into his own adjustment period and how long it took him to change old habits into new behaviours. Maltz, noticed that it also took himself roughly 21 days to adjust and form a new habit. He went on to publish his findings on behavioural changes in his book called Psycho-Cybernetics. The book went on to sell more than 30 million copy world-wide.

His most famous quote reads, “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.” The message started to spread and before we knew it instead of quoting “a minimum of 21 days” to form a habit, people were being told “it takes 21 days to form a new habit”. It went on to set the stage for nearly every ‘self-help’ professional that followed in his footsteps over the coming decades.

So society started to spread this 21 days’ myth relentlessly, up until the point where it is now just common place to hear the phrase. But what most people forget is that Maltz was just observing his behaviours and the behaviours of his patients, not making a factual claim.

So, what does that mean for the time line of breaking a habit?


Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher at university at University College London, published a study in the European Journal of Social Psychology, trying to answer the age-old question just how long does it take to break/form a habit.

During the study, Lally, examined 96 people over a 12-week period, each person chose a new habit for the 12 weeks and recounted each day on whether they did the behaviour, and if the behaviour felt automatic or not.

The behaviours chosen ranged in simplicity from “drinking a bottle of water with lunch,” to a little more complicated like “running five minutes a day.” After the 12 weeks, the research was analysed to determine how long it took each subject to go from starting the new behaviour to doing it successfully every day.

Do you want to know how long it took?

ON AVERAGE 66 DAYS. The study found that it took more than two months before a new behaviour became automatic. Researchers also found that it didn’t matter if you missed one opportunity to perform the behaviour, it didn’t affect the habit forming overall. Meaning that missing one day, or slipping isn’t going to significantly hinder you progress, or your ability to reach your goal, no matter what that goal is.

So there you have it, maybe the age-old saying it takes 21 days to break a habit isn’t too correct after all..

The major take home is don’t give up if you haven’t got there in 21 days! Successfully implementing a new behaviour or breaking a bad behaviour might take a little longer than first thought, but that doesn’t mean you won’t reach your goals in the end!

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