Does It Really Take 21 Days to Form A Habit?

Posted by Daniel Rivera on 13 Mar, 19

Habits are routine, automatic, and sequential movements of our bodies.  The conscious brain likes to take a sequence of actions and convert them into an automatic routine. Then it will be transcribed into the unconscious portion of the brain.

For instance, brushing your teeth is a sequence of complicated motor skills that you do daily, without consciously thinking about each step. Brushing your teeth is a learned habit, just like any other habit.  

As a child, brushing your teeth every morning began as a daily routine which then became automated. This automation is stored in a section of your brain (basil ganglia-for nerds like me) that plays an important role in the development of emotions, memories, movement control, cognition, pattern recognition. and reward-based learning. Once stored it then gets translated to habitual activities…or habits.


So how long, exactly, does it take to form a new habit?

In the 1950s, a plastic surgeon, Maxwell Maltz, began observing patterns among his patients. For instance, he found that after rhinoplasty (a nose job), it would take an average patient 21 days to get used to seeing their face. Similarly, he noticed it would take an amputee approximately 21 days to recover from their ‘Phantom Limb Syndrome’. Maltz wrote about these experiences and said, “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.”

In 1960, Maltz published that quote and his other thoughts on behavior change in a book called Psycho-Cybernetics. The book went on to become a blockbuster hit, selling more than 30 million copies.

And that’s when the problem started. Dr. Maltz never performed in depth research to validate his observations. He merely printed them as if they were facts leading to society spreading this hypothesis as if it were proven.

Ironically, Matlz’ book influenced great ‘self-help’ and motivational professionals from Zig Ziglar, Brian Tracy, Tony Robbins and many, many more. But modern-day science has now uncovered that 21 days to change a habit or form a new habit is inaccurate.


How Long it Really Takes to Build a New Habit?

Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher at University College London, and her research team decided to figure out just how long it actually takes to form a habit. She published her study in the European Journal of Social Psychology,

The study examined the habits of 96 people over a 12-week period. Each person chose one new habit for the 12 weeks and reported each day on whether they did the behavior and how automatic the behavior felt.

Some people chose simple habits like “drinking a bottle of water with lunch.” Others chose more difficult tasks like “running for 15 minutes before dinner.” At the end of the 12 weeks, the researchers analyzed the data to determine how long it takes for a habit to become automated. Here’s the answer. On average…

It Takes 66 Days Before A New Behavior Becomes Automatic.

Yet, this can vary widely depending on a person’s behavior and circumstances. In Lally's study, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit. 

The truth is that it will probably take you anywhere from two months to eight months to build a new behavior into your life — not 21 days.

Interestingly, the researchers also found that “missing one opportunity to perform the behavior did not materially affect the habit formation process.” In other words, it doesn’t matter if you mess up every now and then. Building better habits is not an all-or-nothing process.

Insights by Dr. M & Dr C

The 66 Day Journey

If you’ve been wondering why you haven’t been able to form and stick with long term habits after just 21 days…Now You Know. 21 days simply isn’t long enough. Remember, Rome was not built in a day, so stop being so hard on yourself. Anything, truly worthwhile takes time and effort. You must embrace and fully commit to the process.

When trying to form a new habit, you don’t have to be perfect. Making a few mistakes along the 66 Day Journey will not set you back and won’t have a measurable impact on your long-term habits. Simply get back on tract, quickly.

Understanding this from the beginning makes it easier to manage your expectations and commit to making incremental improvements. Don’t pressure yourself to do it all at once.

Take the challenge!

We challenge you to start a new habit, today. Pick a small habit that you can be successful at. It’s best to start small and keep building on this habit to achieve larger goals. Here are some examples you can try:

  • Drink 8 oz of water as soon as you wake up
  • Walk 20 minutes, 3 days a week
  • Go to bed 1 hour earlier, every weeknight
  • Cut 1 bad snack out of your diet for 6 days out of the week
  • Spend 5 minutes in prayer / meditation daily

These are just a few examples but if you have your own…Go for It.

Let me know what new habit you’ve been able to successfully add to your life. Email us at: We can’t wait to hear about it.