64% of people maintain their New Year’s resolutions for one month, and 46% will stick with it for six months! (source) Will you be one of those people?
It’s two weeks into the New Year and you may still be going strong, or you may already find yourself flagging a bit on your resolution. One of the most powerful ways to transform your lifestyle is to create new, healthier habits. Unfortunately, the art of habit-creation may not be as cut & dry as we previously thought. Read on to learn about the scientific history of forming new habits, and what it could mean for you.
Myth: It takes 21 days to form a new habit
Raise your hand if you’ve heard “it takes 21 days to form a new habit”.
This commonly touted (and admittedly highly encouraging) little soundbite had noble origins. A plastic surgeon in the 1950’s named Dr. Maxwell Maltz noticed an interesting trend in his recovering patients. With cosmetic surgeries, it took his patients about 21 days to get to their new nose, or facelift. Similarly, with amputees his patient would experience a “phantom limb” for about 21 days before adjusting to the loss of a limb.
Fast forward to the 1960’s. Dr. Maltz has published this observation, “a minimum of about 21 days”, and others in his book, Psycho-Cybernetics. Well-meaning admirers of his work began to tout “it takes 21 days to form a new habit”, leaving out the crucial word: minimum. And that’s how we ended up with the somewhat-accurate belief that we can magically transform from our usual ways to Me 2.0 in three weeks.
Truth: It takes between 2-8 months to form a new habit
It took us 50 years to get up to speed, but in 2010 the University College London conducted a study to figure out exactly how long it takes to create new habits.
The study tracked 96 people over 84 days (12 weeks) as they attempted to make a daily health/lifestyle change: Each participant chose a dietary or activity behavior—like, say, drinking a glass of water — to be undertaken once daily — e.g., after breakfast; then they proceeded to self-report how “automatic” (read: habitual) the activity felt each time they did it. The researchers found that it took, on average, 66 days until the behavior reached peak levels of automaticity.” –Lucia Peters
However, there’s some fine print. The average of 66 days fell between a rate of two to eight months, with the “fastest” person forming a habit in 18 days, and the “slowest” person not achieving habitual change by the end of the study (84 days) but instead having their success projected to occur at 254 days (ouch).
Furthermore, the effort required for each habit directly affected length of time to success. Committing to drinking more water is an easier (read: faster) habit to form than committing to an hour of yoga a day.
Best practices for creating new habits:
- Make small goals, celebrate small successes. While it’s admirable to aim high right out the gate, setting smaller, progressive goals can be more manageable. Instead of vowing to do 100 burpees a day, start with 10 a day the first week, 20 a day the second week, and so on.
- Set up a system to stay accountable & on track. Tell a friend to check in on your progress, or publish your goals on social media. Set up a system of rewards for achieving your goals, and a system of consequences for missing them.
- Use technology to your advantage. Set up reminder alarms to keep your commitment top-of-mind, or find an app tailored to your goal. There are apps for tracking workouts, staying hydrated, getting quality sleep, recording meals, and more!