So you have probably heard that it takes 21 days to form a habit.
Well that’s not exactly true, but let me tell you where that common misbelief comes from. Sometime in the 1950s a plastic surgeon by the name of Maxwell Maltz noticed that it took his patients about 21 days to get used to their new faces. Amputees also appeared to take a similar time to stop suffering from phantom limb. He wrote about this is his book Psycho Cybernetics saying that in his experience “it took a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.’
Personal development gurus, spiritual teachers, nutritional experts and many more have quoted, or should I say misquoted this 21 day idea. We have heard it so often that we have been led to believe that in 21 days we can create any habit we fancy.
Unfortunately, as a lot of you will know, it doesn’t always work this way.
What is Habit ?
I’m sure you have set many goals in your life. You may have been successful with some, others not so much. I imagine if you were to look at the goals succeeded with, you will notice that to reach that goal you had to create some type of habit. If you ran a marathon you would have created the habit of running. If you wrote a book, you would have needed a habit of writing. Habits are the core element of goals and habits are created when a behaviour is repeated to a degree that that behaviour becomes automated. When the person carrying out the behaviour does not have to think about the component parts of what they are doing, they have created a habit. Brushing your teeth, driving a car, when we carry out these actions we no longer have to think about what we are doing, our brain does it for us.
Further research has been carried out which demonstrated that it can take a lot longer than 21 days to create a habit. In fact, the type of habit, the person and their environment all have to be factored in before making any claims. In a study carried out by Lally et al. in 2010 they found the average time for participants to reach the automaticity was 66 days, with a range of 18 to 54 days
You may think this is not very helpful and why would you bother if you don’t know how long it will take to get to your destination. But here’s the thing, you don’t spend 21, 44 or 66 days to create a habit and then drop it. The plan is not just to create a habit for a month or two and give it up, when you spend time and effort creating a new habit, you are hoping to create it for life.
When Will it Get Easier?
The real question we all want to know the answer to, according to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, is how long will it take until doing the habits gets easier, until it feels like a natural part of your day? Essentially what we want to know is how long does it take before willpower and grit are no longer required and we can benefit from an automated behaviour? The good news is that it’s always getting easier.
What’s Happening When We Form a Habit?
Neuroplasticity research has now established beyond doubt that instead of being a static cell mass, our brain is actually a dynamic system of neural network that has the capability of significant growth under favourable circumstances. What does that mean? That means that our brain is always growing and an often quoted saying (this one is actually true) Neurons that fire together, wire together. The more you repeat an action the stronger the neural networks grow, when they grow stronger the action becomes easier. This means that the more we practise a certain behaviour the more those neurons fire and wire. Think of it like flowing water, creating a channel in the sand, the more the water flows the deeper the channel gets. The water flows more quickly and easily because the channel has been created. When the water stops flowing the channel doesn’t disappear immediately but it will over time, just like our habits. The more we practise them, the easier they get. If we stop doing it for a week or two the channel will diminish but it won’t disappear, so all is not lost.
So how long does it take exactly?
The jury is still out, but remember that habit strength increases with consistent repetition of the the desired behaviour. So get started because each day you practise is a personal win and each win makes the next one easier.
Stay tuned for more information on Creating habits for the New Year and watch out for my new book Rise Before Your Bull and other habits of successful people.