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The following is an extract from 'Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don't, and How to Make Any Changes Stick', by Jeremy Dean, creator of PsyBlog.
1 Birth of a Habit
his book started with an apparently simple question that seemed to have a simple answer: How long does it take to form a new habit? 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, –3–
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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. Easily, my favorite concerns a plastic surgeon, Maxwell Maltz, M.D. Dr Maltz published a book in 1960 called Psycho-Cybernetics in which he noted that amputees took, on average, 21 days to adjust to the loss of a limb and he argued that people take 21 days to adjust to any major life changes.1 He also wrote that he saw the same pattern in those whose faces he had operated on. He found that it took about 21 days for their self-esteem either to rise to meet their newly created beauty or stay at its old level. The figure of 21 days has exercised an enormous power over self-help authors ever since. Bookshops are filled with titles like Millionaire Habits in 21 Days, 21 Days to a Thrifty Lifestyle, 21 Days to Eating Better, and finally, the most optimistic of all: 21Day Challenge: Change Almost Anything in 21 Days (at least it acknowledges that it might be a challenge!). Occasionally, the 21day period is deemed a little too optimistic and we are given an extra week to transform ourselves. These more generous titles include The 28-Day Vitality Plan and Diet Rehab: 28 Days to Finally Stop Craving the Foods that Make You Fat. Whether 21 or 28 days, it’s clear that what we eat, how we spend money, or indeed, anything else we do, has little in com–4–
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MAKING HABITS, BREAKING HABITS
mon with losing a leg or having plastic surgery. To take Dr Maltz’s observations of his patients and generalize them to almost all human behavior is optimistic at best. It’s even more optimistic when you consider the variety amongst habits. Driving to work, avoiding the cracks in the pavement, thinking about sports, walking the dog, eating a salad, booking a flight to China; they could all be habits and yet they involve such different areas of our lives. But, to be fair, Maltz didn’t invent the 21-day time frame; there are all sorts of origin stories explaining its whereabouts, most of them standing on science-free ground. Thanks to recent research, though, we now have some idea of how long common habits really take to form. In a study carried out at University College London, 96 participants were asked to choose an...
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