How long it really takes to change a bad habit?

How long it really takes to change a bad habit?

Maxwell Maltz was a plastic surgeon in the 1950s.

He performed a wide variety of operations and noticed an interesting pattern. Whether he was removing someone’s leg or giving them a new nose, it took an average of at least 21 days for the patient to get used to the new situation.

In 1960 he combined this theory and other of his ideas in the field of behavioural research and wrote his book “Psycho-Cybernetics” The book became a bestseller and has sold more than 30 million copies.

And this is where the problems started.

In the years to come, most of the successful personality coaches and “self-help gurus” took Maltz’s theory and changed it. Like a damn long game of Silent Post, the original idea: “It takes at least 21 days to change a habit” became the variant: “It takes exactly 21 days to change a habit.”

And so the myth has spread through society that it takes 21 days (or 30 days or some other “magic” number) to change a habit.

That this theory has caught on without being much questioned is, in my opinion, for 3 main reasons:

  1. It is easy to understand.
  2. It sounds short enough to inspire people (“Wow, in just 3 weeks I can change my life!”).
  3. and it sounds long enough to be plausible.

The problem with the story is that Maltz has limited himself to his own perspective and has not tested his theory thoroughly enough to make a universal statement. He has also clearly stated that habit change takes at least 21 days.

So let’s turn to the right answer.

So you want to change a habit. How long do you actually need to do it? Are there scientific studies that prove this? What does this mean for you and me? And what is the best way to go about it?

Changing a habit – How long does it really take?

In a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Philippa Lally and her team from University College London looked at exactly how long it takes to change a habit.

They studied 96 people over a period of 12 weeks. Each participant chose a habit and reported daily whether they kept it or not.

At the end of the 12 weeks, the researchers looked at how long it took each person to automate that activity.

The answer?

On average, it takes more than 2 months for a habit to become automatic. More precisely, about 66 days.

But again, you can’t just generalise like that. The study found that the duration depended greatly on the habit, the test subject and the circumstances. Some test subjects automated a habit after 18 days, others after 254 days.

Do you have to keep the habit every day?

The study showed that it is not so bad if you don’t keep the habit on a few days.

However, from personal experience I can tell you that these days should not accumulate and especially should not be consecutive. Skipping one day is ok, but after 2 or 3 days it becomes critical because you lose momentum.

Overall, I would recommend that you divide your habit into as many small units as possible. Let’s say you want to keep fit and do a workout every day. Then it makes more sense habitually if you work out several times a day for a shorter period of time.

Why is that?

Because your brain learns through repetition. The more often you do something, the faster you get used to it.

How to successfully change your habits

Okay, let’s get down to brass tacks: what can you do concretely?

  1. Don’t be discouraged by the scientific evidence. Sure, it’s harder to stick with a new habit for 2 months, but keep your big goal in mind. 66 days can go by pretty quickly.
  2. Repetition, repetition, repetition. Practice your habit as often as you can. Preferably not just once a day but several times. Our brain memorises repetition and learns from it. (That’s how Arnie 2 became the best bodybuilder in the world, by the way. Repetitions and sets).
  3. Keep at it. As I said, if you miss once, it’s not a big deal. Just make sure you keep going the next day.
  4. Tell other people about your goal. (Friends, family, acquaintances) This will keep you accountable and build some positive pressure. You don’t want others to think you failed, do you?