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How to form new habits.

Have you read or heard that it takes 21 days to form a new habit? It’s a myth, and understanding why can help you break old habits and form new ones.

More than 50 years ago, a plastic surgeon named Maxwell Maltz wrote a book which was based on his observations of his patients.  He noted that it took about 21 days for patients to get used to seeing a new face, and amputee patients would sense a phantom limb for about 21 days before adjusting to the new situation. 

His book sold more than 30 million copies.

Over the following decades, Maltz’s work was quoted by prominent self-help professionals and motivational speakers like Tony Robbins, and the myth continued to spread.

What New Research Has Taught Us

A study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology determined that it takes, on average, more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic — or 66 days to be exact.

It will probably take you anywhere from two to eight months to build a new behaviour into your life — not 21 days

James Clear – Atomic Habits

How long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behaviour, the person, and the circumstances.  In some cases, it took up to 254 days for people to form a new habit, like doing a form of exercise every morning or not checking social media after 9 o’clock.

In other words, if you want to set your expectations appropriately, the truth is that it will probably take you anywhere from two to eight months to build a new behavior into your life — not 21 days.

Enjoy The Process

Interestingly, the researchers also found that “missing one opportunity to perform the behavior did not materially affect the habit formation process.” Great news! Say you skip a workout or cave into a sweet temptation; it’s ok. You can forgive yourself if you fall short every now and then.

Building better habits is not an all-or-nothing process.  Give yourself permission to make mistakes, and develop strategies for getting back on track quickly.

Building better habits is not an all-or-nothing process.  Give yourself permission to make mistakes, and develop strategies for getting back on track quickly. 

For example, set a goal to be disciplined for the next day.  Achieve that, and then set a goal to make it two in a row.  Your next goal?  Retain your new, unbroken streak, one day at a time

Set Realistic Expectations

There is no reason to get down on yourself if you try something for a few weeks and it doesn’t become a habit. It’s supposed to take longer than that! There is no need to judge yourself if you can’t master a behaviour in 21 short days.  Few of us can.

Expect forming a new habit to take at least 3 times longer than you expect, so commit to making small, incremental improvements — rather than pressuring yourself into thinking that you have to do it all at once.

Regardless of how long it takes you, a new habit needs to start with day 1, so ignore the timeline and instead focus on making the right decisions for you as often as you can.

Suggested Reading: 

Atomic Habits – James Clear   

The Power of Habit – Charles Duhigg

Download our free guide to getting fit at home.

We’ve reviewed the best research to provide you with a simple and realistic guide to fitness for life.

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