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How long does it take to form a habit?

Image of Ash Roy
Ash Roy
How long does it take to form new habits

What is a habit?

If you look up the Merriam-Webster dictionary for the definition of a habit, you'll see a few listed. Here are four of those listed :

a settled tendency or usual manner of behavior

an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary

a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition or physiologic exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance

the prevailing disposition or character of a person's thoughts and feelings mental makeup

James Clear defines them as "small decisions you make and actions you perform every day". 

You can check out my conversation with James here where you can also find the 7-step Atomic Habits quick-start action plan.

We talked about the importance of designing your physical and digital environment to build better habits over time. 

So how long does it take to form a habit?

Maxwell Maltz the author of Psycho-Cybernetics (which I remember reading several decades ago) said it takes a minimum of about 21 days to form a habit. 

Over time, the "minimum" was 'lost in translation' and people have come to believe (incorrectly) that it takes 21 days to form a habit. 

Turns out that Maxwell Maltz himself wasn't citing any scientific research when he came up with the "minimum of 21 days" estimate. 

Dr. Philippa Lally — a health psychology researcher at University College London — published a paper that examined the habits of 96 people over 12 weeks. 

So what did they find?

How long does it take to form a new habit?

On average, they found it takes 66 days before a new behavior becomes automatic

That's the average number of days it takes to form a habit.

The actual number of days it takes (for an individual) can vary widely depending on the behavior, the individual, and her circumstances.

This number can vary from 18 days to 254 days. 

So to set your expectations, you're unlikely to form a new habit in 21 days. Expecting to do so will be a fool's errand. You'll be setting yourself up for failure. 

Here's the other interesting thing: missing one opportunity to perform the behavior doesn't materially affect the habit formation process. 

That's good news! 

Most of us have a tendency to "throw the baby out with the bathwater" if we miss a day. Turns out, that's a bad idea. The best thing you can do if you miss a day is to be kind to yourself and patiently get back to your routine the next day. 

We all mess up from time to time and missing a day is a part of the process of habit formation, not a permanent failure. 

 


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