It takes 21 days to form a new habit right? Everyone knows that. Well, hold on a minute – recent research suggests that this isn’t quite accurate. Can a simple habit be formed in 21 days? Certainly. But if you look at the psychology research that was recently done to answer this specific question in “real world” situations, you see it may take quite a bit longer.
Where did the 21 days to form a habit rule come from?
Why do so many people say it takes just 21 days if that’s not the case? Well, it’s an easy mistake to make. Most Burn the Fat Blog readers have probably repeated the 21-day rule at one time in their life. I’ve done it. I mentioned “21 days to a new habit” in some of my older article.
I think the big reason is because major authority figures in personal development – including top motivational speakers – have been saying this for decades. After hearing it from our success mentors, rather than fact-checking, we just accepted it and started passing along the idea to others.
Ok then, why did these self-help authorities say 21 days? I don’t know if anyone knows for sure where it all started, but many people attribute it to Dr. Maxwell Maltz. In the 1960’s, Maltz wrote an excellent book about self-image psychology called Psycho Cybernetics. It sold tens of millions of copies, still sells today, and many of the ideas in that book have stood the test of time and are still useful today.
Some authorities however, may have misinterpreted something Maltz said. Dr. Maltz was a plastic surgeon and he noticed that after surgery, the patients didn’t adjust to their new look right away. They may have had a new face, but didn’t act like a new person yet. He wrote that it appears self-image doesn’t “gel” for 21 days. He also noticed that phantom limb pain after amputation could persist for 21 days. This is why some speculate that this could be the original source of the 21 days to a new habit idea.
Fast forward into the 1990’s and I recall seeing the 21 days idea reinforced again. Around that time, books on neuroscience started being published in droves, often written for the layperson, not just academics. As new brain imaging technologies started emerging, scientists were able to see the brain working, leading to major breakthroughs in neurology and psychology.
One of these breakthroughs was the discovery of neuroplasticity –the way the brain can continue to change throughout life, and new neural connections can be formed and strengthened. Some of this newer research was used in discussions about habit formation, and it appeared to once again, support the old 21 days to form and strengthen a habit concept.
How long does it really take to make a habit: What the newest research says
Wherever the 21 day idea came from isn’t that important. What’s most helpful for all of us is this:
1. Learn the best ways to form new health and fitness habits
2. Get some idea of how long it might take so we can set our expectations in a realistic way and we don’t beat ourselves up if it takes longer than we thought.
We’ll come back to the question of how to form habits in future posts, and for now stick to the question of how long does it take. It turns out, some well-designed psychology research has given us new answers.
The study on how long habits take to form took place at the Health Behavior Research Center at University College in London. It was called, “How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world,” and it was published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.
The researchers recruited 96 volunteers and had each subject choose an eating, drinking or activity behavior to carry out in the same context (for example, after breakfast). Then they reported whether they carried out the behavior. What the researchers discovered was interesting:
The habit didn’t keep getting stronger indefinitely, it peaked and plateaud after a certain amount of time. The time it took participants to reach maximum habit strength ranged from 18 to 254 days! This indicated that a habit could in fact be formed in 21 days, but usually took much longer and there was great variation between individuals in how long it took.
The study said that how long it takes also depends on the type of habit. A simple behavior like “Drink one small glass of water when you get up every morning” might easily be turned to habit in 21 days. A more difficult one like go to the gym every morning at 6 am for an hour of weights and cardio might take longer to become a habit.
There’s also the issue of whether there is an old deeply entrenched habit that we’re trying to “overwrite” with the new one. Breaking old bad habits and forming new ones from scratch are two different conversations.
18 to 254 days – that’s a pretty big range. So with information that general, how are we supposed to set our expectations? Well, there’s more…
The researchers said that the average time to develop a habit was 66 days!
This would imply that the message that’s been passed on for years, “It takes 21 days to form a habit,” is more accurately stated, “It takes a minimum of 21 days to form a habit, usually three times that long, and sometimes even longer.”
Other interesting findings in the habit research
How long it takes to form a habit wasn’t the only eye-opening finding in this study. Head researcher Phillippa Lally and her team also found these two other fascinating facts:
First, the repetitions of a behavior in the early phase can produce a larger increase in automation. This means that while you may not have established a new habit after only 21 days, those early weeks are a very important part of the process. It may take longer for the habit strength to reach its peak (where it plateaus), but if you get through that early phase, you are probably over the hump, so to speak.
Second, the study also found that missing one opportunity to perform the behavior did not materially affect the habit formation process.
This should be a big sigh of relief for many people, especially for perfectionists, because it’s all too common for someone to miss one workout or eat one meal that was off the plan, and throw in the towel right there because they felt they had blown the entire program.
You haven’t sabotaged the whole endeavor or erased everything you’ve already achieved with one slip. By being inconsistent, you’ve simply prolonged the time it will take to reach your goal or form a new habit. In other words, you have not failed until you quit.
If you miss once, just pick up right where you left off. A great mantra to remember after getting temporarily derailed is, “I’m just one meal away from being back on my plan” or, “I’m just one workout from being back on my plan.” What’s done is done, don’t dwell on it. If you fall off the wagon, just get right back on it, that’s all there is to it.
The 28-Day Burn the Fat Fitness Habits Challenge
For many years Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle has been sponsoring body transformation challenges, where the focus was on achieving a fabulous transformation – demonstrated with before and after pictures – either in 49 days (our “short” challenge) or in 98 days (our “big burn”).
Starting with just one 49-day event, we ultimately expanded to offering 5 challenges every year, and instead of making them all before and after photo competitions, we tried some things completely different:
We developed events including fitness challenges to encourage more walking (the Burn the Fat million step challenge and Mt Everest challenge), and challenges based on points (no pictures) to encourage positive self image (the Burn the Fat Love Your Body Challenge).
And now we have added a challenge to encourage the building of key health habits, also scored on points for carrying out healthy behaviors (the Burn the Fat 28-day Fitness habits challenge)
Just give me 28 days
You’ll notice we didn’t choose 21 days for our Fitness Habits Challenge. But if it really takes 66 days on average to reach the peak of habit formation, why only 28 days? Why not make a fitness habits challenge longer?
We considered that, but if the same research also says that the early repetitions are most important in habit formation, then you can look at entering this 28 day challenge as a spectacular way to plant the seeds and develop the roots of the healthy daily habits you need to get leaner, fitter and healthier.
Rest assured, something good is happening in those first 28 days. After 28 days of daily accountable action steps, there’s been enough repetition for simple habits to start to gel, and I believe that after 28 days, the seeds of even the toughest habits to form have been planted and the roots have taken.
Yes, after the Burn the Fat Fitness Habits challenge is over, you will have to keep watering those seeds, killing the bugs and pulling out weeds from time to time if you want to keep those habits growing and healthy, and see the full results begin to sprout.
Yet, that means you could think of our 28-day Burn the Fat Fitness Habits challenge as “the planting”… This challenge is also the catalyst for getting out of coach-potato mode (breaking inertia) and getting started into health and fitness mode.
If you want to plant the seeds of great fitness habits in your life starting right now, then I invite you – I challenge you – to take advantage of this opportunity and enter our 28-day fitness habits event.
Take the Burn the Fat Fitness Habits Challenge!
The challenge is free for Burn the Fat readers, members and subscribers!
We sponsor many events all year round, but the Fitness Habits challenge only happens once a year, at our Burn the Fat community website, Every fall.
By holding this challenge in an amazing online community of like minded people, you’ll also get accountability and support that makes planting and growing new “habit seeds” infinitely easier than trying to do it on your own – and a lot more fun and social!
Here’s yet another reason to accept my challenge: Remember what that research study said about missing a single day not setting you back to zero, and that you can just get right back on track with the next meal; the next workout? Well we took that to heart…
Our contest is based on points not pictures (of before and after). You get points for every repetition of every positive behavior.
And guess what? You don’t need a perfect score to win. If you miss a point, no sweat. All we want you to do is KEEP GOING. JUST FINISH! If you simply finish the 28 days, even without a perfect score, you still get entered in our drawing for prizes.
Hope to see you there!
Train hard, and expect success,
Tom Venuto, author of Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle
PS. To celebrate the kick-off week for the Burn the Fat 28-day Fitness Habits Challenge, I’m doing a random book giveaway right here on Burn the Fat Blog – just leave a comment below for your chance to win. Note: This is time sensitive and will be expired once you see winners posted below.
I’m giving away 3 hardcover copies of Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle, personally signed and shipped anywhere in the world. I’m also giving away 2 copies of the Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle audiobook, either on downloadable MP3s or shipped to you on CD. The winners will be chosen at random for leaving a comment here on the blog below.
All you have to do to enter is leave a comment below about one of the following (or both): 1. Share your experience: tell us how long you think it takes for you to develop health and fitness habits. 2. Name the one habit you need to work on developing that you think would make the most dramatic difference in your health, physique or both.
Drop your comment below to enter, thanks for participating, and I hope to see you in the Burn The Fat Challenge!
Congratulations to our free book winners:
1. Ashanti Carrington
2. Janet Liz
3. Dave BB
To collect your winnings, contact me at www.burnthefatblog.com/contact/ and write “I won” in the subject line. In the message, mention whether you won the book or audiobook (and if the latter whether you want the CD’s or MP3’s), and for books/CD’s please include your postal shipping address.
Tom Venuto is a natural bodybuilder, fat loss coach, fitness writer and author of Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle. Tom’s articles are published on hundreds of websites worldwide and he has been featured in Muscle and Fitness, Men’s Fitness, Oprah magazine, The New York Daily News, The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. He has appeared on dozens of podcasts and radio shows including Sirius XM, ESPN-1250, WCBS and Day Break USA. Tom is also the founder and CEO of the premier fat loss support community, the Burn The Fat Inner Circle.