Q: I’ve heard again and again that it takes 21 days to form a new habit, but mine never stick...
I’ve tried going to the gym for 21 days, and I keep it up for a while, but then I lose motivation. I’ve tried to cut sugar from my diet, and I gave up on day seven. Why isn’t the 21 day magic number working for me?
A: The short answer is because this number isn’t actually magic, and the process of creating healthy habits is different for everyone.
Forming a new habit is like nurturing a plant. It doesn’t happen overnight, and the time it takes can really vary. I have seen Lifeforce members achieve incredible consistency in 21 days, and I have seen others who are still working on locking in a particular habit 21 months later. This can depend on your lifestyle, the nature of the habit itself, and even your mindset. Personalizing your approach — whether it's through the type of habit or the method you use — makes a big difference in how quickly and effectively you can adopt a habit.
The 21 Day Myth
If the journey is so individual, why do we all hear about the 21-day philosophy? This theory actually originated with Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon in the 1950s. Dr. Maltz noticed that when he performed a surgery, it typically took his patients about 21 days to adjust to their altered appearance. He also observed that it personally took him a minimum of 21 days to form a habit. He published his theory in the 1960 book Psycho-Cybernetics. Since then, his hypothesis has been repeated, exaggerated, and widely accepted as fact.
However, recent research disproves this idea and paints a much more nuanced picture. Researchers at University College London conducted a detailed study on how long it took participants to adopt practices such as drinking more water or starting a fitness program. They found the average was 66 days, and for some people, it took up to eight months. A 2023 study in Psychological and Cognitive Sciences found that there is no exact amount of time it takes to pick up a new routine — it differs across people and behaviors.
How Our Brains Form Habits
While we don’t know the precise number of days, we do know that our minds are wired to build new habits. The trick is repeating them over and over again. Our brain responds to repeated behaviors by strengthening neural pathways, making the action more automatic over time.
Consistency isn't just about frequency; it's about the regularity and predictability of the action. This neurochemical change is a fundamental component of why some habits can be formed relatively quickly, while others take longer. It's a testament to the power of human adaptability and resilience.
6 Tips to Make Your Habits Stick
There's a beautiful moment in habit formation when everything clicks, and your new habit feels as natural as breathing. But remember that getting to this point takes time and patience. It's a journey worth taking, and the rewards are profound.
Here are some tips to support you on your journey.
1. Set your intention.
The intention behind an action plays a pivotal role in habit formation. It's not just about what you do, but also why you do it. When your actions are driven by positive intentions, like improving health or achieving personal growth, they resonate more deeply with your psyche and body. This connection creates a feedback loop where the intention enriches the action, and the action reinforces the intention.
Check out this post for more tips on how to find your ‘why.’
2. Focus on one step at a time.
Break down large goals into smaller, manageable steps and repeat them regularly. Think of it like building a house, brick by brick. For example, if your aim is to exercise an hour a day, simply start with a five-minute workout every morning.
This technique reduces the overwhelm often associated with big goals, making the new habit more approachable and less daunting. Regular repetition of these small steps fosters habit formation, gradually leading to more significant, long-lasting changes.
3. Stack your habits.
Try linking a new custom to an established routine. For example, if you want to start a daily meditation practice, you could meditate for a few minutes right after your morning coffee.
The existing habit will naturally cue the new habit, which makes it easier to remember and stick to. This method leverages the ingrained patterns in your daily life, integrating the new habit into your routine seamlessly.
4. Create a supportive environment.
Set yourself up for success with your surroundings and social circle. For instance, if you want to eat healthier, keep fruits and vegetables in visible, easily accessible places, while storing less healthy snacks in hard-to-reach spots — or, ideally, not in the house at all.
Alternatively, this can also look like vocalizing the change to your close friends, family, or coworkers, and getting them involved in the process. This creates a circle of cheerleaders and significantly increases accountability.
By arranging your surroundings to make good habits more convenient and celebrated and bad habits less so, you're leveraging the natural human tendency to follow the path of least resistance. Basically, you’re making your life easier and happier!
5. Cue, crave, reward.
In James Clear’s book Atomic Habits, he describes the “cue, craving, response, reward” framework. Here’s how it works: You identify a clear cue, like placing running shoes next to your bed. This triggers a craving — the desire to run — followed by the response of actually going for a run. Finally, you identify a reward, such as a sense of achievement or a healthy snack post-run, which reinforces the behavior. This method creates a structured process that makes you more likely to adhere to your habits.
6. Act mindfully.
Incorporating mindfulness practices into habit formation is a profound strategy. If your goal is to exercise daily, engage in mindfulness during your workout. Focus on the present moment and bring awareness to your body's movements and sensations without judgment. This can be as simple as tuning into your breath or focusing on the feeling of a muscle contracting.
Mindfulness reduces automatic, mindless behaviors, making the new habit a conscious, deliberate choice that aligns with your present moment experience. This helps the habit become more sustainable.
Ultimately, creating healthy habits isn’t about a magic number. It’s an art blended with science. It's about understanding yourself, your needs, and your goals. It's a personal journey that requires patience, adaptability, and a willingness to learn and grow.
The most important thing is to enjoy the process and embrace each step of the journey. After all, it's these small steps that lead to significant changes in our lives. It's a beautiful, intricate dance of mind and body that provides priceless lessons of self-discovery beyond the habit itself.
— Dotun Olubeko, Lifeforce Senior Health Coach
Looking for more support to create sustainable healthy habits?
This article was medically reviewed by:
Renae Thomas, MD, MPH; ABFM Board Certified in Family Medicine, ABPM Board Certified in Public Health, & General Preventive Medicine; ABLM Board Certified in Lifestyle Medicine
Mary Stratos, PA-C, Institute for Functional Medicine Certified Practitioner