The New Year brings with it the promise of a new beginning, new opportunities and changes. And as convention goes, if you have a new year resolution up your sleeve and want to make it into a daily habit, all you need to do is stay strong for 21 days. While the magical properties of the number 21 are unclear, what is clear now is that habit formation theories which suggest it takes on an average about 21 days for an action to become a habit, are in fact false. A simple Google search about habit formation or daily habits has long yielded results which tell the reader that a time period anywhere between 21 to 28 days is perfect for a habit to form. However, a recent psychological research breakthrough achieved by researcher Phillipa Lally and her colleagues from University College London has challenged this common belief that has been around since 1960. The research paper which has been published in the European Journal of Social Psychology has challenged the 21 day generalization and has provided a new turn to this sub-field of psychological studies.
What Are Habits?
Before we move onto understanding habit formation, it’s important to know what exactly are habits anyway. We keep using the word “habit” to describe behaviors which are usually automatic in nature and can be done “without thinking”. While our definitions are very far off from reality, here’s how a psychologist describes a habit –
“learned actions that are triggered automatically when we encounter the situation in which we’ve repeatedly done those actions.”
We can break down this definition into three elements –
- Learning – refers to the process of knowing how to do a particular action
- Repetition – refers to doing that action again and again
- Automaticity – refers to the stage where one does not need conscious repetition and practice in order to do the action.
Habits are also divided into the good and bad categories – good habit formation is where you are working towards a goal by either opposing a bad habit and trying to modify your actions, or trying to create a new set of actions altogether.
The Common Belief
The origins of the 21 day myth can be traced to a preface to a book called ‘Psycho-cybernetics’ written by Dr. Maxwell Maltz and published in 1960. A plastic surgeon turned psychologist, Maltz wrote –
“It usually requires a minimum of about 21 days to effect any perceptible change in a mental image. Following plastic surgery it takes about 21 days for the average patient to get used to his new face. When an arm or leg is amputated the “phantom limb” persists for about 21 days. People must live in a new house for about three weeks before it begins to “seem like home”. 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.”
One possible explanation cited for the broad generalization of this medical observation is that the phenomenon of ‘habituation’ or getting used to something was mixed up with ‘habit formation’ or the gradual association of a response with a particular situation or object. The bottom line is, one cannot of course hold Maltz’s observations responsible for the misplaced views about habit formation.
UCL Research Breakthroughs
The researchers at UCL concluded through a series of experiments, that it takes on an average about 66 days to form a new habit. Lally and her colleagues did a series of experiments with 96 people who were allowed to perform a self-chosen activity such as drinking a glass of water or doing 50 sit-ups before breakfast daily. The participants were tracked for 84 days and questioned daily about how automatic the chosen behavior felt. A few interesting observations were made which are best represented by this graph below (graph source: Psyblog)
The graph clearly reveals a curved relationship that exists between practice and automaticity. Practice refers the conscious repetition of the behavior by the participant, which requires considerable self control towards the beginning. Automaticity, as discussed above, refers to stage where one no longer needs to consciously think about performing the particular actions – they happen “without thinking”. In other words, they become habits. The research suggests that for most participants, a plateau in automaticity was achieved in 65 days. After reaching the plateau in automaticity, the behavior becomes an automatic response to a given context. Habits are context-dependent, a context is a particular situation or object which triggers the response. In the UCL research experiments, a few links were drawn between practice and automaticity by the researchers:
- as the graph suggests, early practice produced greater automaticity. The plateau in automaticity was achieved faster ie. the habit was formed faster with early practice.
- practice and automaticity varied according to the habit as well. Drinking a glass of water before breakfast plateaued faster than doing 50 sit-ups every morning, showing that the relative difficulty of the particular action is also an important variable.
- the time taken for a behavior to become an automatic response also varied from person to person – for some it took just 18 days, while for others it took longer, even upto 254 days. However, the average time taken was 66 days.
- the strength of a habit depended on the amount of practice given to it to achieve automaticity. There was a stronger chance of an individual acquiring a habit that was more suited to become one. In other words, some habits were found to be more suited to habit formation as opposed to others.
The research also suggested that some people might be habit resistant, which means they take a longer time to acquire a habit as compared to others. Similarly, some habits are harder to form because of the level of dedication and focus they need. However, not performing the particular activity on a single day did not have an overall effect on the habit formation for the participants. Thus, 66 days was the average time period it took for an individual to be able to perform the activity “without thinking” – it became an automatic response triggered by a set of associated stimuli.
Questions Seeking Answers
The research also answered some burning questions about the entire process of habit formation:
- What are the key points to keep in mind about creating and breaking habits?
To create a habit, one needs a situation to associate the activity with. Habits are context-dependent and need a cue to be triggered automatically. For example, if you want to create a habit of meditating before bedtime, then the context is ‘before bedtime’. This is the setting in which you will perform your chosen activity consequently, so make sure you keep this setting consistent. Associate a particular time with it to make it a more regular behavior, it will help you maintain the momentum.
- Is habit formation affected by age and gender?
Research does not suggest that men and women acquire habits differently, despite different cognitive processes being at work. Habit formation is for now, a gender neutral phenomenon. Moreover, it has nothing to do with age as well.
- What level of consistency is ideal in habit formation?
While the research shows that missing out on a single day does not affect progress, some level of consistency is definitely needed. There is no set level established, however if you’re very inconsistent, in the sense that you don’t have a set plan of action and an established context cue for your activity, then habit formation can turn out to be a painstakingly long process for you.
- What are the implications of this research?
The research has definitely shown us that forming habits is not easy, and it requires time and patience. 21 days, as is the common belief, is not the average time period we need to form a habit. Apart from time, habit formation is dependent on other factors such as nature of the individual, the type of habit and the initial repetitions of the habit in the practice stage. To form a habit, one needs to be clear about the behavior they are aiming at and set a context for the same. While we can safely say that you must stay strong for atleast 66 days, don’t stop putting in hard work after those 66 days are over. For all you know, it might just take longer.
It’s just not a habit or hobby, it’s a LIFESTYLE.