How Long Does it Really Take to Change a Habit?

We are driven by our habits.  In fact, our lives revolve around them!  We have a tendency to think of habits as personal, which they are.  However, whether we realize it or not, our habits create the fabric of our lives on both a personal and professional level!  Creating a habit is really no different than “learning” and making decisions to embed that knowledge through repetition so that it becomes a part of our thoughts, words and deeds. Habits are both good and bad and therefore, a blessing and a curse.  Once a habit (good or bad) is created it’s very hard to change.  This is why something that seems so simple like losing weight and keeping it off can be so difficult.  In spite of this, it’s equally important to state at the outset….

Many people can and do change their habits to achieve their goals.  Success in any arena, especially as it relates to habits is usually a circuitous route rather than an upward trajectory.

What factors influence us when creating new habits or breaking old ones that hold us back?  Not surprisingly, our lack of awareness plays an important role in helping us to maintain both good and bad habits. This is because when “thinking patterns” are created they become second nature and are embedded subconsciously.  Other forces combine together and help us develop certain “thought patterns” that in turn, cause us to respond/act in specific ways. The illusory truth effect and priming are at the top of the list.

In an experiment published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers discovered that people are more likely to believe a statement if they hear it repeatedly.  This holds true even if they previously thought the statement was false!  For example, even if students knew that “a short pleated skirt worn by Scots’ is called a kilt, they were more likely to rate the statement, “A sari is the name of the short pleated skirt worn by Scots’ as true if they had read the statement multiple times.  This phenomenon is known as the “illusory truth effect” and is far more common than we realize.

Related to the illusory effect, is another powerful and subconscious way we are inadvertently influenced called “priming.”  For example, studies show that people tidy up more if they can smell cleaning products in the air, become more competitive if they see a briefcase and are even more helpful if they read words like “supportive” and “dependable” even though they are not aware of the change in their behavior and what influenced it!  Psychologists refer to this as “priming.”  In other words, it’s a demonstration of how ordinary smells, sights and words can selectively activate our thoughts and feelings causing us to respond in certain ways.

Perhaps this is why most people believe that it only takes 21 days to change a habit.  In 1960 Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon, wrote a best selling book, Psycho-Cybernetics.  The book sold more than 30 million copies worldwide.  Dr. Maltz noted that it took at least 21 days for patients to become accustomed to changes in their appearance.  He aptly stated, “These, and many other commonly observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.”  As a result of this simple observation, many more self-help books were spawned touting Dr. Maltz’s observation as bona fide research.  A number of prominent individuals from Zig Zigler to Tony Robbins referenced Dr. Maxwell Maltz.  Hence, a general observation, not based on any scientific research became a “fact”  In other words, the statement was repeated so often that people took it at face value.  Everyone bought into it, including the experts!

Changing habits involves two main components, motivation and automaticity.  First and foremost, we have to want to change at our very core. Our desire to change is often propelled by a realization or awakening of sorts and/or circumstances resulting in a “perfect storm.”  This is why so many of us have to hit “rock bottom” before saying enough is enough!  It’s also why sheer willpower, in and of itself is not effective if we want to achieve long-lasting results.  In the short term it’s easy to make changes, but making them “stick” is a process that involves a deep desire, and automaticity.  At this level of thinking our conscious and subconscious mind are able to work together to bring about a permanent change.

When we do something without thinking the scientific term is  “automaticity.” When this occurs an action, skill or thought pattern becomes embedded in both our conscious and subconscious mind. Anyone can learn new skills/habits and make them stick by developing automaticity.  Once we can accomplish a task while on autopilot our chances of success soar!  This deep level of acting and thinking is honed through consistent repetition. For example, think about how we learned how to ride a bike.  We were motivated to succeed, and we didn’t give up no matter how often we fell off.  By repeatedly trying to ride we learned all the other skills that made us “experts” at riding a bike, driving a car, learning how to read etc.  Every skill and/or habit (both good and bad) that we are experts at we chose to create. Eventually, these endeavors became second nature and automaticity kicked in.

Research shows that it takes approximately 66 days to create a new habit.  Keep in mind, that this number is not set in stone.  For some people it can take much longer, while others may be able to embed a new skill within a shorter amount of time.  Don’t put too much stock into an exact number of days.  Everyone is different.  What’s important to keep in mind is that creating habits is much harder than experts originally thought, plateaus are natural and habits will eventually take hold is we are consistent and persevere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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