Busting the Biggest Myth Ever: 21 days to a New Habit

Can you really form a new habit in 21 days?

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new habits?

What do successful people all over the world have in common? The all-encompassing answer would be – good habits! A habit by definition is something that you practice every day without putting in conscious effort. A good habit, thus, is something beneficial to your physical or mental self; something that adds value to your life.

Unfortunately, we’re humans, and human beings have been blessed abundantly with a tendency to form bad habits more easily than good habits.

Good habits don’t come easy. We have to nurture them.

We have to birth them (with the right inspiration), feed them (with the right motivation), maintain them (with reinforcements), and sustain them (with a genuine desire to see effects long term).

What is the 21 day rule?

In the early 1950s, Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon, performed a variety of procedures ranging from nose jobs to leg amputations. He observed that his patients took about 21 days to get used to their fresh faces or adjust to their new bodies. Armed with this information, he scrutinized his own abilities to form a new habit or adapt to change in 21 days. Subsequently, he published his findings in a book titled Psycho-Cybernetics. He wrote, “it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.”

The book exploded in the 1960s and became very popular. Everybody was talking about the magical 21 days required for habit formation.

But slowly, authors started omitting the phrase ” a minimum of 21 days” from their texts and shortened it to “it (only) takes 21 days to form a habit” to sell their pieces better. And that’s where everything started getting all muddled up.

You see, habits aren’t formed in just 21 days.

Phillipa Lally, a senior researcher at University College London, conducted a study in 2009, which she published in the American Journal of Sociology. She reported that for an average person; it takes about 66 days- or over two months – to form a habit. She debunked the myth for many bloggers and authors that talked about “bettering lives in 21 days!”

I believe habit formation is a personal experience. It depends on a variety of factors, which can we can group broadly into (1) habit size, (2) genuine desire to incorporate habit long term & (3) accountability or motivating factors.

With the right will power and determination, one CAN develop a habit in 21 days! The key is to be consistent and remove all mental blocks that come your way.

Stages of habit formation:

Stage 1: (1-4 days)

This is the period when you’re on a high with your new habit. You’re excited and you can’t wait to see results! You are ready to put in all that you have to make this work.

Stage 2: (5-10 days)

The excitement and the delirium wear off by this time. You realize that it takes hard work to keep practicing your habit. Most people who aren’t serious about committing to new habits drop out of the race at this point.

For the sincere ones, this is the time to motivate yourself with pictures, quotes, and videos of the end goal that you are after! Reinforce belief in yourself and hold yourself accountable to supportive friends and family. Talk to them about the challenges you face and figure out a way to address these challenges.

Stage 3: (11-16)

Be an intelligent observer at this stage. Study the changes you have implemented and how this has affected your health, your body, or your life in general. You could start documenting your journey in a journal, or publish regular blogs telling your friends about all the little milestones you have achieved.

Stage 4: (16-21)

As you enter this stage, rejoice over your commitment and hard work to keep your new habit going. This is the last leg of your race.

This phase should be easy to breeze through! But wait, attaining the 21 mark day doesn’t mean you can let go of your habit.

Use the last few days of this stage, to think about how you can sustain this habit long term. Make slight changes, if you will, and commit to continuing it long term.

Many authors have outlined techniques (backed by science) to help in habit formation. One popular technique that several authors guarantee works is to create a mental picture of yourself already practicing that habit. For example, if you want to make a habit of waking up early every day – picture yourself waking up early in your head and keep telling yourself “I’m an early riser, I’m an early riser, I’m an early riser. I wake up at 6 am every day.”

James Clear, in his book “Atomic Habits’” talks about several practical strategies on how to make good habits and break bad ones. His insights about building long-term good habits stem from his personal experiences, and promise to help you be a better version of yourself. In his book, he talks about theories like the compounding effect and the “4 laws of effective behavioral change”.

“The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg is another brilliant book that talks about an important concept called the habit loop – i.e. the “cue-routine-reward” loop. It stresses the idea that you cannot change an emotional or physical trigger (cue) that pushes you to a habit or the end reward you get from it. What you can do instead is plan to redirect your “cue” to a better routine which will help you get the same reward. This book is a must-read, filled with real-life examples of stories (such as that of Michael Phelps, Martin Luther King Jr, and Starbucks Coffeehouse), wherein good habits directly influenced success.

The third book I recommend getting hold of is “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” by Carol Dweck. This book stresses the power of one’s growth mindset. Carol argues that if somebody has a growth mindset, then even if their talents or abilities don’t amount to much, we can hone them for better success. In short, there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to good habit formation. Everybody has distinct types of triggers and rewards to unwelcome habits they cannot get rid of. Identifying these triggers and the rewards you want to get, is key to breaking dreadful habits and forming fresh ones.

Wishing only good habits on you from now on!

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