Most Popular Answer – 21 Days: It was Stephen Covey who made the first bold claim about how long it takes to form a habit in self-improvement classic, ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’. According to Covey, 21 Days is the magic number, after which, your brain and body essentially switch to autopilot.
I believe the power and popularity of this suggestion stems from the fact that it’s an attractive timescale that doesn’t seem insurmountable. Most people are up for a 21 day challenge, provided they have reasonably strong motivation. It’s easy to look 3 weeks into the future, and it is wonderful to think that you could lay the foundation to become a totally different person in such a short period of time.
However, Stephen Covey is not the only author to apply his mind to this particular problem, and his answer is far from universal.
More Accurate Answer – 66 Days: In his book “The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results”, Gary Keller references a significantly more in-depth study into the time it takes to form a habit. The conclusion to that research indicates that on average, it takes most people 66 days for a habit to really gain traction. In fact, for some people that participated in the study, it took more than 250 days for the switch to autopilot to take effect.
Personal Observation On Habit Formation: One of the simplest habits that I have developed in the last year is to make a small repayment on my home loan, each and every day. I’ve been doing this for about 3 months (so approaching 90 day mark). Now when I fail to make a small bond repayment, it actually causes psychological discomfort. I have come to enjoy this ritual, to the extent that things feel out of place if I don’t follow through with this action on any given day. I think it safe to say that when a habit feels natural, comfortable and automated (and not performing the habit causes discomfort), the foundations have been laid for a behavior that may well live with you until the day you die.
Final Thoughts: If you have intentions of forming a life changing habit, I would urge you to bet on the safe side and aim for 60+ daily repetitions. The science on this matter suggests that the recipe for a concrete habit requires 66 days to set. If you can go beyond this number, lifelong change may well be achieved.
Additional Food For Thought: The analytics team at Gold’s Gym noticed a seemingly bizarre trend with their members. Simply put, most gym users give up on their fitness resolutions in the first week of February. In that small window period, an alarming number of new gym members will see their attendance nose dive. However, if their members make it through the month of February, they have an 80% chance of still attending the gym regularly for the rest of the year. In other words:
- Gym members who hit the magical 21 day have no guarantee of becoming regular gym members
- Gym members who hit the 60+ day mark, have an 80% chance of staying the course for the rest of the year
To me, the data discovered by the Gold’s Gym analytics team further validates the suggestion that it takes more than 2 months for most people to establish a solid habit. In other words, it takes 3 times longer than most people think to form a reasonably strong habit. That might not be the popular answer, but it appears to be right one.