Does it take 21 days to change a habit?
As usual there is a story behind
this edition of Inspire. I am putting together an online development programme
to start in January, which I was thinking of calling 101 Days To Make A Change,
borrowing the name from my colleague, Roy Leighton’s book. Then someone said,
‘Doesn’t it take 21 days to make a change, why don’t you do a 21 day programme?’
We have all probably heard about this idea that it takes 21 days to change a
habit and I have often said to clients, ‘It is said that it takes 21 days to
change a habit’, although I also say that this is talking about changing simple
habits. Whereas, if you are trying to develop new behaviours which are more
complex, for example, attempting to be more assertive, it will take longer. But
this time I decided to do some research as to whether there is any validity in the
21 day claim.
I found mentioned in
a number of articles regarding research into this, that the 21 days comes from Dr
Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon turned psychologist, in the preface to his
1960 book ‘Psycho-cybernetics’, he wrote:
‘It usually requires a minimum of about 21 days to effect
any perceptible change in a mental image. Following plastic surgery it takes
about 21 days for the average patient to get used to his new face. When an arm
or leg is amputated the “phantom limb” persists for about 21 days. People must
live in a new house for about three weeks before it begins to “seem like home”.
These, and many other commonly observed phenomena, tend to show that it requires
a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to
jell.’ (pp xiii-xiv)
However, there have been a number of research projects,
which de-bunk this 21 days myth.
Different research projects have
shown different things but most show that 21 days is not a good yardstick for
most people to follow.
Research from UCL in 2010 involved people choosing to make a
daily health promoting dietary or behavioural change. The average for the
change to become automatic was 66 days – they point out that if you make a New
Year’s resolution and stuck to it, it would mean 6th March is when the average
person would find that it had become automatic. However, someone in the study
took 18 days while one person took 254 days before the new habit became
So I have decided to create The 66 Day Challenge: ‘Transform
difficult interactions into productive working relationships’. More details
will come shortly in a separate Inspire, so watch out for it. You can also
follow the Twitter count down to the start of the programme on the 10th
January, which starts today 5th November, follow: MelanieInspires.
becomes automatic we don’t have to exert self-control to make it happen, it
happens automatically. There will be some good habits that you have which you
automatically do without thinking, e.g. brushing your teeth everyday, drinking
when you feel thirsty, saying thank you when someone does something for you. However,
there will also be some bad habits that you have fallen into which you do
without thinking. I remember one client, a senior manager, who, when he
answered the phone, would bark, ‘Steel’ (which was his surname), which was
fairly off-putting and not exactly going to build rapport with the person at
the other end of the phone! Until it was fed back to him, he had no idea what
he was doing, and what the negative impact of this was (along with some of his
other behaviours) on his working relationships.
What automatic habits do you have which are good for you and
others around you? What automatic habits are bad and you would like to change?
‘Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’
The UCL research showed that missing
one opportunity to perform the behaviour did not materially affect the habit
formation process. However, repetition of a behaviour in a consistent context increases
your chances that the new behaviour will stick and become automatic. Which is good
news if you are looking at something like: eating a healthier breakfast,
exercising regularly, as you can fix a time and place for ‘repetition of a behaviour
in a consistent context’. However, with more complex changes it might need a
little more help, hence The 66 Day Challenge.
Is there a context to your negative automatic habits which
can act as a trigger to change? Or can you create a context which will trigger
the new positive habits?
A couple of years
ago I held a webinar on Changing Habits of A Lifetime and talked through Robert
Dilt’s ‘Logical Levels of Change Model’ to help explain why we sometimes find
it hard to change, and if we approach it at the right level, then change
becomes easy. For example, if you want to be more assertive but you have the
belief, ‘I’m just not an assertive person’ or ‘If I am assertive with my boss
he’ll fire me’ or ‘If I am assertive, people won’t like me’, these beliefs will
hold you back, however much you learn assertive behaviours. See the PowerPoint
and listen to the webinar recording: click here.
impossible without change, and
those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.’
George Bernard Shaw
Yes, I know I keep on writing about being
mindful but that is because it is the key to changing a lot of things in our
lives. If we are aware of our thoughts, mood and state of mind, we can take
action to manage what is going on within us and not just sleepwalk though life,
falling into the old well-worn paths of negative behaviour which we want to
change but year after year appearing to not be able to.
Think about when you can check in with yourself to encourage
yourself to be more mindful.
‘When the whole situation makes you unhappy and confused,
choose one thing, however small, that you would like to change.’
I am doing some fascinating
work with a colleague of mine, Roy Leighton, who has been working with schools
for a number of years developing students’ emotional intelligence, resilience
and ability to manage their own learning. One of the ideas he introduces is the
learning line, based on the Hero’s Journey, which I wrote about in February
this year, see here.
When we start to learn something or change a habit, we are
in a state of unconscious incompetence, not realising what we don’t know or how
difficult things are going to be. Let’s take the example of learning to drive a
car, think about how you felt before you learned to drive a car, it is easy to
think, ‘Millions of people do it, it can’t be that hard!’.
Then you have your first lesson, you realise that there are
a 101 things to learn, think about, do with your hands and feet, and you wonder
how anyone ever masters it. This is the state of conscious incompetence. For a
number of lessons it seems to get even worse as the instructor gives you even
more things to do, and at times you just want to give up. And some do. But most
don’t, they persevere, they practice, and they get to a stage of conscious
competence, where they can drive competently and even pass the exam. But you are
having to think about it the whole time and wonder how people drive and speak
at the same time! Usually after we have passed our test, with more experience,
we get to a state of unconscious competence, where we naturally change gear,
look in our mirrors, indicate without thinking. It has become second nature.
And the same can be said for becoming more assertive, exercising regularly,
choosing which food to eat in a mindful way, managing our moods, etc.
However, like with driving, we can slip back into
unconscious incompetence, where we pick up bad habits. We might not crash our
cars but we probably wouldn’t pass a test again if we had to take it today.
Think about something you are trying to change, which level
of competence are you: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious
competence, unconscious competence?
‘That which we persist in doing becomes easier - not that
the nature of the task has changed, but our ability to do has increased.’
Ralph Waldo Emerson