How does someone form a new habit?

habit quote

How does someone form a new habit? In this article, we will delve into the science of habits. Find out how long habits take to form and what keeps them going.

Maxwell Maltz was a plastic surgeon in the 1950s when he began to notice a strange pattern in his patients.

When Dr. Maltz performed an operation – such as a rhinoplasty – he found that it took about 21 days for a patient to get used to his new face. Similarly, when a patient’s arm or leg was amputated, Maltz noticed that the patient felt the phantom limb for about 21 days before adjusting to the new situation.

How is a habit formed?

The experience prompted Maltz to reflect on his own adjustment period to change and new behavior, and he noticed that it also took him about 21 days to form a new habit. Maltz wrote about these experiences and said, “These and many other commonly observed phenomena show that it takes a minimum of about 21 days for the old mental image to dissolve and the new one to solidify.”

In 1960, Maltz published this quote and his other thoughts on behavior change in a book called Psychocybernetics. The book became a blockbuster hit, selling over 30 million copies.

And that’s when the problem started.

You see, in the decades that followed, Maltz’s work influenced nearly every major self-help professional, from Zig Ziglar to Brian Tracy to Tony Robbins. And as more people told Maltz’s story – like a very long game of “Telephone” – people began to forget what he said “at least about 21 days” and cut it down to: “It takes 21 days to form a new habit. “.

So society began to spread the common myth that it takes 21 days (or 30 days, or some other magic number) to form a new habit. It is surprising how often these time frames are cited as statistical facts. A dangerous lesson: if enough people say something enough times, everyone else starts believing it.

It is understandable why the myth of “21 days” will spread. This is easy to understand. Timelines are short enough to inspire, but long enough to be believed. And who wouldn’t love the idea of ​​changing their life in just three weeks?

But the problem is that Maltz simply observed what was happening around him, and did not state the fact. Moreover, he necessarily said that it was minimum the time it takes to adapt to new changes.

So what’s the real answer? How long does it actually take to form a new habit? Is there any science to back this up? And what does all this mean for us?


How does someone form a new habit and for how long

Philippa Lalli is a health psychology researcher at University College London. AT study of published in European Journal of Social PsychologyLally and her research team set out to find out how long it actually takes to form a habit.

The study looked at the habits of 96 people for 12 weeks. Each person chose one new habit for 12 weeks and each day reported on whether they performed the behavior and how automatic it felt.

Some people have chosen simple habits, such as “drinking a bottle of water with dinner.” Others chose more challenging tasks, such as “running 15 minutes before dinner.” After 12 weeks, the researchers analyzed the data to determine how long it took each person to go from starting a new behavior to automatically doing it.


On average, it takes more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic, and to be precise, 66 days. And how long it takes to form a new habit can vary greatly depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances. In Lally’s study, it took people 18 to 254 days to form a new habit. [1]

In other words, if you want to get your expectations right, the truth is that it will likely take you two to eight months to implement a new behavior into your life, not 21 days.

Interestingly, the researchers also found that “missing one opportunity to perform a behavior had no significant effect on the habit formation process.” In other words, it doesn’t matter if you get it wrong from time to time. Developing better habits is not an all-or-nothing process.

Inspiration on a long journey

Before you let that discourage you, let’s talk about three reasons why this study is truly inspiring.

First, there is no reason to beat yourself up if you try something for a few weeks and it doesn’t become a habit. It should take longer than that! No need to judge yourself if you can’t master a behavior in 21 short days. Learn to love your 10 years of silence. Take the long, slow road to greatness and focus on reps.

Second, you don’t have to be perfect. A mistake once or twice has no noticeable effect on your long-term habits. That’s why you should treat failure like a scientist, allow yourself to make mistakes, and devise strategies to quickly get back on track.

And third, using longer time frames can help us realize that habits are a process, not an event. All the hype around 21 Days can make you very easily think, “Oh, I’ll just do it and it’ll get done.” But habits never work that way. You must accept the process. You must dedicate yourself to the system.

Understanding this from the start makes it easier to manage your expectations and strive for small, incremental improvements, instead of forcing yourself to think you have to do everything at once.

Where to go from here

In the end, it doesn’t really matter how long it takes to form a habit. Whether it’s 50 days or 500 days, you have to work either way.

The only way to get to Day 500 is to start on Day 1. So forget about the numbers and focus on getting the job done.

James Clear writes about using behavioral science to master your habits and improve your mental and physical health. If you liked this article, subscribe to his free newsletter.


  1. Even though the study only lasted 12 weeks, the researchers were able to use the data to estimate longer periods (eg 254 days) for habit formation. Again, the exact time depends on many factors and is not as important as the general message: habit formation can take a long time.

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