How long do you think it takes to form a habit?
When I ask people this question, I almost always get two answers:
Thirty days makes sense. We think about time in days, weeks, months, and years, and a month seems reasonable; it’s the only increment that’s not too long and not too short.
Twenty-one days, though? Not complete sure where that one came from. I’ve heard that a plastic surgeon named Maxwell Maltz threw that number out sometime in the mid-1960s as he was publicizing his work on “psycho-cybernetics” (whatever that means) and, somehow, it stuck.
But there’s a problem with both numbers, and it isn’t that they’re wrong (the actual number is 66). It’s that they’re wrong in the wrong direction.
I wouldn’t mind if everyone thought that a habit took 100 days to form. That would be more realistic. The problem is the excessive optimism.
We should be telling people it takes 150 days to form a habit so that they come into the process with the right mindset (and more realistic expectations). As my high school track coach always taught us, “pretend the finish line is 100 feet further than you think”. That ensures you don’t let up and coast the last few feet of the race.
While 66 days is the average time-to-habit, there’s quite a bit of variance in how long different habits take to form. Easy things, such as drinking a glass of water after breakfast, are quick; they can take as few as 20-40 days to form. More challenging things, like “walking after breakfast,” can take hundreds of days to become automatic.
Most of the habits people try to form fall into the challenging bucket and are likely to take 200+ days of consistent repetition to become reflexive.
This is why the “Tiny Habits” approach of BJ Fogg is so smart (and effective). In his program, he tells people to come up with the smallest possible first action and do it until it becomes automatic, at which point a new tiny behavior is added, and so on. This approach works because it forces you to choose behaviors that have a short “time to automaticity.” They’re in the 20-40 day range, not the 100-300 day range. Instead of trying to start one long-to-form habit after another (and stopping half way through), it pushes you to build a solid foundation of one simple behavior after another. It’s the slow, steady, patient path to changing your life—and that’s the only path that *really* works.
More on habits soon.