Myths About Habits, Debunked

Posted by on Jul 3, 2015

I struggle with forming habits just like everyone else.  I rely on them and spend time creating and reinforcing them so I can go on auto pilot on low days and still take care of my body, relationships, and work I’d like to do.  Getting in the habit of writing every day is a tough one.  It’s still forming for me. And it’s worth the effort to create it. What habit are you working on?

Thorin Klosowski offered up some thought-provoking myths on habit on his blog Lifehacker. Four of them, as a matter of fact.  I like to take things in small bites, so here’s the first. Tell me if you feel relieved.  I did.

“Myth: It Takes 21 Days to Form a Habit

You’ve probably heard it takes 21 days to form a habit (or possibly 28 or 30), but according to most studies, that simply isn’t the case. But it helps to know where that myth comes from. It seems like the initial “21 days” idea originated in Maxwell Maltz’s book, Psycho Cybernetics:

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.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the time it takes to adjust to the loss of a limb doesn’t correlate to forming a habit at all. Still, self-help gurus latched onto the 21 days idea and spread the myth everywhere they could.

So, researchers from the University College of London decided to take a closer look. In their study, they found that habits take a lot longer to form. They’re also dependent on the person and the habit. On average, it took people 66 days to form a habit, but it varies for everyone (the variability was big, too, ranging from just 18 days to 254 days). Their study was small at just 96 participants, but it still shows that the amount of days it takes to form a habit is variable.

Which is all to say, there’s no magic number and no magic bullet. It’ll take time and effort to form a habit, so don’t expect to automatically start doing something in just 21 days. Habit forming is a process, not an event on your calendar, so don’t treat it like one.

Next myth tomorrow.

Want to read more now?  All four myths are found at Thorin’s blog here.

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