How long does it actually take to form a new habit?


If you’re a normal human being (sorry if you’re not), you probably have numerous habits. You might not be aware of them, or you might hear about it every day from a bemoaning partner! Nevertheless, we all have little habits that we exhibit on a daily basis. It might be smoking, it might be biting your nails, it might be swearing, it might be picking your nose – or it might even be a good habit, like making lists or going for a daily run. Either way, we all have them. But what makes it a habit? And how long does it take to form a new one?


Where it all started

The investigation into the length of time it takes to form a new habit was instigated in the 1950s by the plastic surgeon, Maxwell Maltz. Maltz began to question habitual behaviors after he noticed that patients would take a certain amount of time to get used to their new faces, noses, or even an amputated limb. He found that many patients who had a limb amputated would feel as though they had a phantom limb for up to 21 days before finally realizing that their limb was no longer there. These observations allowed Maxwell Maltz to think about his own daily behaviors, and he noted that he normally took around 21 days for an action to become automatic to him. This led him to conclude that it takes 21 days to form a new habit, which he wrote in his best-selling book, Psycho-Cybernetics. This ideal soon spread and became commonplace of everyday life, with people believing his hypothesis. However, this has since been disproven.


A new study

Since Matz hypothesis, many scientists have made it their life’s work to disprove his theory with their own evidence. Phillippa Lally did just that. The health psychology researcher from the University College London conducted her own study, where she found that Maltz’s conclusion was false. Lally and her research team studied 96 people over the course of 12 weeks to examine their habits. Each participant in the study chose a habit which they were to adopt for the full 12 weeks, with examples like ‘drinking a bottle of water with lunch’ and ‘running for 15 minutes before dinner.’ The participants then reported back to the researchers each day to describe how often they did the behavior and how easy and automatic the habit was that day. They collected all of the data and came to a new conclusion.

Their conclusion

Lally and her team concluded through their study that it takes over two months for a new behavior to become a habit – i.e., it becomes an automatic response. They exacted their data to 66 days. However, they did also conclude that this formation can vary depending on their personality, the circumstances, and the behaviors of the person – as many of their participants found that the time for their habits to form ranged from 18 to 251 days. From this experiment, Lally found that you cannot judge yourself how long it will take you to form a new habit and that giving yourself 21 days is completely unreasonable. This also means that it’s not the end of the world if you stray from the desired behavior for a while – your body won’t hate you for it.

What this means for us

We can often be put under pressure to maintain our habits and behaviors to live a healthier, happier life. But as we know from this study, it’s not as easy as that. If your motivation to run every day doesn’t stick after the first three weeks, don’t get down on yourself. Keep persevering, and you will get there in the end. Don’t judge yourself, don’t knock yourself down, and don’t give up.