Ask someone how long it takes to establish a new habit and 21 days is frequently mentioned. This number is confidently spoken, not questioned, and believed to be true for everyone. After hearing it so often, I decided to investigate where this number came from to see if there is truth behind this infamous number and also to find out if one can create a lasting habit in less time.
Maxwell Maltz was a plastic surgeon who, after studying many patients and himself, came up with the theory that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. He came to this conclusion after seeing patients every day after their plastic surgeries.
Asking what they thought about their new bodies, he noticed it took patients around 21 days to get used to their facial alterations or body parts. He went on to publish this in his book Psychology Cybernetics, which sold over 30 million copies. The problem isn’t that Maltz’s math was incorrect; his observations were merely that, observations. And some of the people who read his book and were influenced by what they read went on to write their own self-help books based upon information that wasn’t backed by any scientific data.
Maltz’s original theory proposed at least 21 days to form a new habit, which was then shortened to only 21 days. This misinformation has taken off since few questioned the legitimacy of the statement. Let me remind you that having plastic surgery and a new face is much different compared to changing behavior habits. The research points in a much different direction with behavior change.
In 2010, a group of researchers at University College London wanted to find out how long it would take to create the formation of a habit. In this study, 96 participants chose an eating, drinking, or activity behavior to carry out each day for 12 weeks. Participants reported if they did the behavior daily or not, and if they did, how automatic it felt.
After the completion of the study, results showed that it took the average person 66 days for the behavior to become automatic/habitual, which is over two months, while the overall range was anywhere from 18 to 254 days. I don’t mention this to frustrate or disappoint you, but to introduce you to habit forming that takes just days and has impacted over 40,000 people. Welcome to Tiny Habits.
The Tiny Habits method was created by BJ Fogg, a Behavior Scientist at Stanford University. In his research, Fogg quickly realized that in order to create behavior change, one needs motivation. The main concept behind the Tiny Habits method is to take the behavior you want in your life and make it tiny which makes it attainable and also removes the high degree of motivation many behaviors need to complete.
This tiny behavior should be something that you can do once a day, takes less than 30 seconds to complete, and requires little effort.
The Tiny Habits approach is similar to how a large tree starts as a seed. Just as a seed needs daily attention, desired behaviors have to start small and become bigger and longer lasting. Neither a tree nor a habit grows big overnight.
Starting a Tiny Habit is as simple as developing a behavior you want to start doing, not a behavior you should do. Once you have a behavior in mind, you then break it down into smaller parts. For example, Fogg wanted to start flossing his teeth daily; instead of flossing all of them, he started tiny with one tooth. It is important to make the behavior tiny, thus it appears easier and effortless to complete.
After you have created your tiny behavior, then you need to find a spot to put it in your day behind an already formed behavior, which Fogg calls anchor points. In the example where Fogg decided to floss one tooth after he brushed his teeth, brushing his teeth was already an anchor point or habit for him. By putting the new behavior (flossing) behind an already habitual routine (brushing), it helped increase success. Now that you have your new tiny habit and an anchor point, it is time to complete what Fogg calls the recipe.
To complete and create a new behavior, a recipe must first be designed and then followed. With your tiny habit and anchor behavior in place, you will now create “After I” statements and “I will” statements. “After I” statements are existing behaviors (anchors) and the “I will” is the new behavior (tiny step) you want to add into your life. For example, After I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth.
Overall, the Tiny Habits program for lasting behavior change helps make new behaviors simpler to accomplish. By taking out the motivation factor and making new behaviors tiny, the success rates tend to be higher. The wanted behavior isn’t as intimidating and thus seems easier to achieve.
Another great aspect of the Tiny Habits program is that you can participate in it for free. Every week, Fogg starts a new 5-day session of the Tiny Habits program. A coach gives daily support along with guiding you through your desired tiny habits. I personally have gone through this program and recommend it, especially if you want to start incorporating a new habit into your life.
Check out the website tinyhabits.com if you are interested in making a change in your life for the better.
Also, on my YouTube series PaleExercise we’ll cover strategies about how you can make new habits.
21 Days is a Myth