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Is 21 Days Enough to Change a Habit?

A few years ago, I was inspired by the concept that “it takes 21 days to form or break a habit.”

So, I created my own 21 Day Challenge.

The 21 Day Challenge was an online event where I encouraged thousands of people to take on or break three habits. Some people chose simple things like eating a green smoothie every day and going for a twenty-minute walk. Some people attempted more challenging changes, such as adopting a raw food diet.

The event was a success, but I realized it was a mistake of mine to ask people to choose three habits.

Directing one’s attention on too many things at the same time makes it challenging to stick with any one item.

So, the 21 Day Challenge should have focused on only one habit.

The other thing that I started to question was, does it take 21 days to form or break a new habit? I used that number because’ that’s what I’d heard, but in my own experience, I noticed that it takes much longer than 21 days to establish a new habit.

My own experience leads me to believe that it takes at least three months to form a new habit so that’ it’s deeply ingrained inside of us. For example, everybody’s tried an exercise program and kept it up for 21 days, but 99% of the time it doesn’t last. To form a habit and keep it, or break a habit permanently, takes more time.

I noticed when giving up fats and oils in a diet that it takes at least 60 days for the taste buds to adapt to a fat-free diet. The same is true for sugar. Caffeine is also the same. In my experience, it takes about 3-4 months to break a caffeine habit. It gets easier with time, but for this new habit to be ingrained takes at least 3 or 4 months. To break alcohol habits takes even longer, depending on how long and how much’ you’ve been drinking.

Where does this 21-day rule come from?

I did a little research and found that it came from Maxwell Maltz. Maltz published the blockbuster self-development book Psycho-Cybernetics, which sold more than 30 million copies and influenced an entire generation of self-help gurus like Tony Robbins and Brian Tracy.

Maltz was a plastic surgeon who noticed a strange pattern among his patients. After an operation, he found that the patient would take about 21 days to get used to their new face.

Maltz also noticed that his patients who had had an amputation would sense a fathom limb for about 21 days. This prompted him to say, “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 gel.”

Maltz said that it takes a minimum of 21 days for a new habit to form and then the next generation—the Zig Ziegler’s and Tony Robbins of the world—said that it takes 21 days to create a new habit as if it had been a rule all along.

Forming or breaking a habit in 21 days is a myth. According to the person who started it all, it takes a minimum of 21 days. In reality, how long does it take to form or break a habit?’ Let’s see what researchers have found.

There was a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology where a team of researchers tried to figure this out.

They took a group of 96 people and followed them over 12 weeks. Each person took on a new habit for 12 weeks, and they had to report whether they did the behavior and how automatic it became. The researchers found that it takes more than two months before a new behavior becomes automatic.

The exact number was 66 days, but this was an average because in the group it took anywhere from 18 to 254 days before a new habit was formed. They also found that “Missing one opportunity to perform the behavior did not materially affect the habit formation process.”

So it didn’t matter too much if the person messed up now and then. What was important was that they kept trying to implement the new habit.

What do we see here?

First, it doesn’t take 21 days to form a habit. Maybe some practices could take as little as 21 days, but most patterns will take at least two or three months to form or break. Let’s get rid of this absurd 21-day rule. People give themselves too little time to adapt to a change. If you think after a couple of weeks this new habit ingrained in you, think again. You should give it more time (several months), for this new lifestyle to become automatic.

Let us question these rules because they influence people.

Many people, myself included, were led to believe that you could change any habits in 21 days. We tried it, and we thought that after 21 days this new habit could be broken or formed, and it didn’t work, so we gave it up. We believed that failure was our fault. In reality, we didn’t give it enough time.

Think about everything that you’ve managed to achieve success.

How long did it take you to get used to this new situation? Let’s use smoking as an example.

For smokers, it takes at least a few months to get rid of most of the cravings, and then a few years to detox depending on how much they’ve been smoking. Likewise, a significant change in life requires time to adjust. I know that when I moved from Vancouver to Montreal, it took me several months to adapt to this new environment.

Let’s give ourselves more time to form or break new habits. I would say that 60 to 90 days is a minimum.

Your comments?

Frederic

Frederic Patenaude
Frederic Patenaude
Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets. He lives in Montreal, Canada.