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The 21-Day Myth: Why It Takes Longer than 21 Days to Make or Break a Habit

Most of us know to live well we need to eat nutritious food, move often, not smoke, get plenty of sleep, consume alcohol in moderation, do work that fulfills our souls, minimize stress, keep our minds sharp by learning new things, and maintain good relationships with the people in our lives.

Engaging in these lifestyle habits over a lifetime is beneficial, but making healthy choices day in and day out can be challenging. Many people believe that making or breaking a habit to create that long-lasting change requires just a dose of willpower and 21-days. It’s a popular myth—but it’s just that: a myth.

Breaking the 21-Day Habit Myth

Research1 indicates it takes about 66 days for a new habit to become automatic. Eliminating unhealthy habits is hard and initiating new habits and routines can be even harder. Even if highly motivated, adopting new habits requires a great deal of focus and effort. Habit creation takes time and practice – a lot of practice.

66 Days – that’s more than two months! No wonder we’re so frustrated after 3 weeks of doing all the right things. No wonder we don’t feel accomplished—it’s because we’re only a third of the way there. We’ve bought into the 21-Day idea, and we tell ourselves, “I can do anything for 3 weeks! After that, I will be different.” However, research and practical application indicates we need more time and practice for true habit change to take place for the long haul.

As an alternative to making a huge proclamation and relying strictly on willpower, how about laying a foundation of practice first? “Practicing” a habit may sound odd, but just like anything else, we get better at things through practice and repetition. For the brain to accept an action as automatic, it is necessary to repeat the required action over and over again and train your brain.

Woman drinking water

The One Habit Project

“We become what we repeatedly do.”  Sean Covey

It is easier to invite in small changes over time and then layer on new ones as the old ones become second nature.

We know this to be true. A baby doesn’t take off sprinting once its legs are strong enough to support their body. “Taking baby steps,” is the perfect analogy for creating new habits.

Ready to take one step? Welcome to the One Habit Project.

Set yourself up for success by picking a habit you know you can adopt without enormous effort. The idea is to experience an immediate win. Once a habit is formed, you can add another habit, then another.

Choose an activity that is meaningful to you. What do you need more of? What do you need less of?

Here are some examples to get you thinking:

  • Drink a full glass of water upon rising every morning.
  • Eat at least one vegetable with lunch every day.
  • Go for a post-dinner walk each day.
  • Read for 15 minutes a day.
  • Change the background noise in your home to soothing music.
  • Make your bed every morning.
  • Turn the lights off at the same time every night.
  • Floss your teeth every night.

The possibilities are endless. Simply pick something meaningful to you.

Creating Lasting Impact: Habit Reflection

Once you’ve chosen One Habit, the challenge then becomes how to create lasting impact.

Doug Moore and Spencer Greenberg embarked on a 2 year habit research project for ClearThinking.org.2 Their research revealed one technique in particular that helped people establish and maintain new habits with greater success than those that did not use this technique.

The technique, “Habit Reflection,” uses lessons from past experiences to set you up for success in in the present. In addition to helping participants establish lasting habits, those who use Habit Reflection report greater satisfaction with their progress along the way.

Here is how you can use Habit Reflection to create a method to implement your One Habit Project with a greater chance of success.

3 Steps to Implement Habit Reflection:

  1. Recall a previous experience in which you successfully changed a long-term behavior or embraced a brand-new habit.
  2. Write down lessons learned from the experience. What tactics, tools, or tricks did you acquire then that you could use in creating a new habit now?
  3. Write out a brief plan applying these lessons to your new habit.

This concept puts you in the driver’s seat for your health and longevity trip. Like any journey, it only takes one step to get started, and the One Habit Project gives you the power to choose and focus on one habit. Simplicity gives you the time and tools to practice a new habit that supports your life today.

About the Writer

Kelley Rakow, Health and Lifestyle Coach

Sources

  1. How Habits are Formed; Modeling Habit Formation in the Real World
  2. Make Habits Stick, Fast Company

 

Information presented by W(h)ealth should not be relied upon to determine diet, make a medical diagnosis, or determine treatment for a medical condition. The information is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. Consult a doctor and/or medical professional before making any health changes, especially any changes related to a specific diagnosis or condition.