There is an oft-quoted time frame that’s become accepted in many self-help circles, and among those coaching others to make changes in their lives. We hear over and over again that for something to take root and become habitual requires a minimum of three weeks, 21 days, or something longer—like a month. Where did this come from?
One never knows for sure, but the interwebs coughed up the name Maxwell Maltz.
In the preface to his 1960 book Pycho-Cybernetics, Maltz (a plastic surgeon turned psychologist) wrote about how “it usually requires a minimum of 21 days to effect any perceptual change in mental image” following plastic surgery to get “used to a new face.” Apparently, when an arm or a leg are amputated, the “phantom limb” can persist for about 21 days, also.
Dr. Maltz highlighted a number of other phenomena that clock-in around 21 days, or three weeks, to take root.
James Last, a writer focused on “behavioral psychology, habit formation, and performance Improvement” mentions that it was Maltz’s book that influenced a host of self-help gurus, from Zig Ziglar to Tony Robbins. Last equates it to that game we played when we were kids, “Telephone”—where a story gets started and by the end, Maltz’s “a minimum of 21 days” has now been turned into a gospel aphorism that “it takes 21 days to form a new habit.”
I’m not being dismissive that it takes a certain amount of time to install something new, allowing it to become ingrained. But perhaps it takes somewhat longer than a mere three weeks? But I might be missing some new smartphone app that circumvents this and maybe habit formation has been compressed by a modern day Maltz, and I’m just not aware of him (or her).
Here’s a study that demonstrates that a mean of 66 days was required for habit formation, with ranges from 18 to 254 days before participants became “automatic” in their behaviors. The high-end of that range is considerably longer than the 21 days regularly tossed out.
I don’t want to minimize that changing our behavior takes some effort. However, three weeks might be a baseline goal to shoot for, recognizing that it could take longer. This is more in line with the adage that “nothing happens overnight.”
I’m happy to report that Mark Baumer has been walking barefoot for 21 days in his quest to cross America. Mark is a believer in positive change and modeling behaviors that take time to cultivate.
We’ve now been three weeks from when our dug well initially went dry. The well has somewhat recovered and on Wednesday, a new well got drilled. We’re now waiting for it to be hooked up and plumbed-in.
And on a much more positive note, this is week five for me following a whole food, plant-based diet. I had no idea how things would proceed when I first decided to eliminate meat and dairy from my diet. I’ve been pleased by the results. I notice that I’ve had much more energy, rarely crashing mid-afternoon like in the past (when I was always reaching for a coffee). Another bonus has been that my excess flab from eating too much junk and processed food over the summer has been falling away. Plus, I am no longer craving crap like potato chips and other foods that are just empty calories.
I’ll wait a bit longer before rendering my new lifestyle a permanent habit.