Say you want to go to the gym regularly, eat more fruit, learn a new language, make new friends, practice a musical instrument, or achieve anything that requires regular application of effort over time. How long should it take before it becomes a part of your routine rather than something you have to force yourself to do?
I looked for an answer the same way most people do nowadays: I asked Google. This search suggested the answer was clear-cut. Most top results made reference to a magic figure of 21 days. These websites maintained that “research” (and the scare-quotes are fully justified) had found that if you repeated a behavior every day for 21 days, then you would have established a brand-new habit. There wasn’t much discussion of what type of behavior it was or the circumstances you had to repeat it in, just this figure of 21 days. Exercise, smoking, writing a diary, or turning cartwheels; you name it, 21 days is the answer. In addition, many authors recommend that it’s crucial to maintain a chain of 21 days without breaking it. But where does this number come from? Since I’m a psychologist with research training, I’m used to seeing references that would support a bold statement like this. There were none.
My search turned to the library. There, I discovered a variety of stories going around about the source of the number…
→ This post is part of a series on habits:
- How to Banish Bad Habits and Control Temptations
- How to Stop Biting Your Nails
- How Long to Form a Habit?
- Get the First Chapter of ‘Making Habits, Breaking Habits’ for Free
- Happy Habits: How to Fix Bad Moods
- 10 Step Guide for Making Your New Year’s Resolutions
- How to Fight Excessive Doubt
- Can You Be Addicted to Facebook or is it Just a Bad Habit?
- How to Help Other People Change Their Habits
- Habits and The Unexpected Benefits of Weak Self-Control