For a long time we’ve been told that in 28 days we could count on a new habit sticking for good. But not so fast — does scientific research back up that claim? No, it turns out that figure is a considerable underestimation.
Theories on how long it actually takes for habits to become automatic are all over the map. The 21-day estimate is based on the work of plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz who in 1960 published a guide to visualization and goal setting called Psycho-cybernetics. He noticed that it took about that long before patients became used to new physical characteristics, such as having a slim, upturned nose.
After one self-help author after another quoted him it soon became gospel and now few experts challenge that wisdom. Too bad. Folks who work hard to make positive changes — to quit smoking, or start exercising, or drop unhealthy extra pounds — become discouraged if after three weeks they still struggle. Something must be wrong with this program if following it hasn’t turned effortless, they figure.
New research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the National Institute of Mental Health suggests that it may take twice as long as previously believed to change habits. Reversing neural pathways could take 40 days of repeating new behaviors before the brain is actually “re-programed.” That jibes with the findings of researchers at the University of London who say it takes an average of 66 days for habits to become automatic, depending on how complex the behavior is.
In any case, forming better habits is a major commitment of time, effort, and emotional energy. Don’t worry about how long it may take. You’ve got plenty of time to get to where you want to go in your life if you’re as patient and understanding with yourself as you are with your patients.
“Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
— Mahatma Gandhi