Does it really take 21 days to make or break a habit?

As a personal trainer, I’ve heard and used the following statement so much that it’s become one the most basic principles to live by: “It takes 2 weeks to create a physical habit and 3 weeks to make a mental habit”.

Since I am currently changing a few things in my current daily routine, I’ve questioned how true this statement really is.

So how long does it take you to adjust to something new?

It depends on the significance of the change itself makes a very good point: It depends. Bigger changes will take longer for the body and mind to adapt to, while smaller changes are much easier and therefore would take less time. The same goes for mental changes. Livestrong says that you should start noticing physical changes from a new exercise regime in about 3-6 weeks, but that your body will take 3-6 months to adapt completely.

Addictions and Recovery explains that it takes at least 3 months for your brain chemistry to return to normal after you quit smoking. This clearly indicates that some changes will take much longer than the typically quoted 21 days that we love to quote. It should be noted, however, that most withdrawal symptoms tend to cease after the 21 day mark.

How long will it take someone who has never exercised before to get into the habit of running 50 miles a day? A lot longer than it will take him (or her) to adjust to a five minute walk. This is why incremental changes are so much more effective than trying to do everything at once. Although extreme changes are more likely to give you faster results and get you to where you want to be a lot sooner, smaller changes done over time are almost always more sustainable. The greater the change, the less likely you are to stick to it and follow through until it becomes a part of your day-to-day life. Extreme physical changes can also lead to over training, a state where the body experiences more physical stress than it can handle and starts to break down. Smaller changes are easier to adjust to and will build your resilience up to a point where you can handle more.

It also depends on the amount of changes you make

A lot of small changes could also amount to an overload of stimuli. Waking up earlier in the morning, increasing caloric expenditure through exercise AND decreasing caloric intake from diet can take a bigger toll on your physical or mental state than what only one of these changes would do on their own. This could cause you to relapse into living your previous lifestyle and eventually lead to the yo-yo effect where you constantly switch between periods of extreme exertion and no exertion at all.

Rather start with one of these changes and maintain it until you are confident enough in yourself to move onto the next change. The results might take longer to manifest, but you’ll be taking a lot less back-steps on your journey.

What exactly is a habit?

The beauty of a real habit is that we do it without thinking. This means that real habits don’t require that pep talk that you give yourself before you do something – you just do it because that’s what you always do. This is true of both positive and negative habits. Motivation comes into play when you need to CHANGE or CREATE these habits – not maintain them. If you still find yourself dragging your feet or needing to recite the reasons why you are doing something, it’s not a habit yet.

New habits take different times to form, depending on the person and the habit itself

The European Journal of Social Psychology found that it took anywhere from 18-254 days for a new activity to become truly habitual (automatic in execution). The great variance was attributed to the type of activity, the degree of change between the new habit and previous lifestyle, and the amount of days that the person actually did the new activity. Surprisingly, “missing one opportunity to perform the behavior did not materially affect the habit formation process.” According to the study, it takes an average of 66 days to create a new habit.

How can I speed up the habit-forming process?

Fortunately, there are ways that you can speed up the habit-forming process. This is how:

1. Focus on your emotional outlook towards the change

Changes that you enjoy will take a lot less time to become a habit. If you are trying to socialize more and find that it is a lot of fun, you will start craving this activity. Feelings of deprivation decrease the ability of habits to form. If you feel like you’re are losing out in some way when you make a change, you will associate negative emotions with the change and it will take a lot longer for it to stick. Doing a form of exercise that you enjoy will motivate you to keep doing it until it becomes a part of your daily life. Thankfully, you naturally start enjoying exercise over time. If you are trying to make a change for health reasons, positivity in itself is good for you and increases the recovery process.

2. Minimize the physical cost of the change

If the new habit you are trying to create is a physical one, like exercise or a new eating plan, minimizing the physical cost of the activity will increase your body’s ability to adapt to it. Making sure that you get enough rest and nutrition after exercise will increase your body’s ability to adapt to it and shorten the amount of time that your body will need before being able to do it again. Proper rest and nutrition will help you adjust to a whole range of changes, including mental ones like thinking more positively or doing a new mental activity like studying or writing.

3. Replacing one habit with another will work if the basic need is still met

They say that it is easier to break a habit by putting a new one in its place. This is only true if it satisfies the same need – or gives you the illusion that it does. This can lead to surprising combinations that actually work. Some ex-smokers who quit have done well by replacing the activity with eating something instead of smoking – because it gave them something to do with their hands and their mouths. Others have done well with replacing cigarettes with a glass of water because it helped the body eliminate the toxins that the cigarettes put into the body. Water decreased withdrawal symptoms – while smoking would have also decreased withdrawal symptoms. If you struggle to exercise at night because that is your time to rest, seeing exercise as a form of mental rest can help.

After a lot of research and a little fun, I have realized that ‘the 21 day rule’ is not as universal as I initially thought. I also learned that habit is more than being able to do something without a lot of motivation or effort – It is doing something automatically without giving it much thought at all. I hope that you learned something that could make your life easier as well.

As always, feel free to comment on, like, share or reblog this post. Have a great day!



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