Asking: How Many Days Does It Take to Form a Habit Is a Wrong Approach

People thinking about forming good habits often get stuck. They get preoccupied with a question that feels hopeful. But it’s actually hollow inside. In particular, looking for the answer to: How many days does it take to form a habit?

I’m not going to drag the answer to the very bottom of the article.

There is no point.

If you want to know how many days does it take to form a habit, here’s what the experts say:

According to a study done by the European Journal of Social Psychology. For a person to form a new habit, and for this habit to become a kind of automatic behavior, it takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days. Commonly, the number is 66 days.1

The reason the range is so large is because there are a lot of factors involved – motivation, past accomplishments, the mindset of the person, the environment, etc.

Of course, there are other, more optimistic suggestions.

Most commonly. The false belief that it takes 21 days to form a habit.

The so-called 21-day habit theory.

According to productivity experts, if a person commits to doing something – anything – for 21 days straight. This thing will supposedly become automatic behavior that doesn’t require any effort.

But is this really the case?

Well, based on my experience as a person committed to writing, reading, and exercising daily. I’ll have to answer with:

Not at all.

Say that you want to lose weight – probably the most desirable undertaking of the modern man stuck behind a screen for more than 8 hours.

Losing weight, in general, consist of two things: Exercising and carefully considering what you eat.

To keep things simple.

We’ll focus on the exercising part.

OK. You get a gym membership. And you start going.

Assuming that you force yourself to go for 7 days in a row without whining about it. Then, let’s even consider that you summon enough willpower to keep going for 14 days. Even 21 days.

What do you think will happen?

Do you think that now you will automatically visit the gym and train on autopilot?

Of course not.

You will still have to engage in the frustrating experience of going to the gym.

You will still have to engage in the even more undesirable activity of actually exercising – stretching, jumping, lifting weights, returning them to their places, etc.

And more so, keep doing all of this if you want to keep your body in shape.

The Incentive Behind How Many Days Does It Take to Form a Habit

What people are really asking when they ask: “How many days does it take to form a habit?” is not something they would care to admit.

Precisely, what people are asking is how many days it will take for things to get easier.

In your head. You’re looking for evidence that an exercise will not always be so stressful. Waking up at 5 AM will at some point bring pleasant sensations. Reassurance that not holding a cigarette – if you want to break a bad habit – will not always feel like part of your body is missing.

There’s something powerful about knowing an end exists. In the case of habit-formation. A potential future date where tasks that require a lot of effort will start to require less effort.

For a person who’s new to exercising, for example. Having a particular end date where things will supposedly become easier means being able to convince yourself that you can push through that number of days.

Convince your emotional-hungry brain that, “I can do this for 21 days since on day 22 things will be a lot easier!”

The problem arises when we get to the twenty-second day. If our initial conviction was that things will now be easier – automatic even – when we hit a particular date. We’ll be quite disappointed when things remain hard. Thus, we’ll return to our old ways of doing things – not going to the gym.

As you can imagine, a workout always requires effort. Regardless of how many days you’ve been visiting the club.

Personally, I’ve been waking up at 05:00 and working out in the morning for 3 years now, and at least 5 out of 7 days I want to throw my phone out of the window so I can sleep longer.

I’m way past the mark where things supposedly become automatic. And yet, I still struggle.

Why?

Because things don’t get easier.

You simply realize that exercising is something good. Something you need to do for yourself. It’s about internal conviction. Not passing some imaginary checkpoint.

Instead of asking: How many days does it take to form a habit?

You should ask yourself: What do I truly value that will motivate me to do certain activities daily?

The 21-day Habit Formation Myth

Before we get to the real question you should be asking yourself.

Let’s see why we mistakenly believe that it takes 21 days to form a new habit.

In a famous book from the 1960 – Psycho-Cybernetics. The author, Dr. Maxwell Malt, famously said: “These, and many other commonly observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.”

From there. Things get a bit sidetracked.

As more and more people referenced the book. People dismissed the words “minimum of about 21 days” and re-framed the words to, “it takes 21 days to form a new habit.”

After all, 21-days seems reasonable. Easy. Tweetable. Doable. In line with our immediate gratification habitat.

21-days to form a new habit sounds like the perfect slogan for a self-help book or for an online course.

Pretty much everyone can persist in doing something for 21 days.

But what people missed – and still do – is the main important thing.

It can be found in this part right here: “a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell (emphasis mine).”

You don’t start to sleepwalk to the gym. You don’t start to lift weights on autopilot. Your mental representation of what you need to do changes.2

You transition from, “do I really have to go to the gym?” to “I’ll have to keep going to the gym if I want to feel good in my own body!”

Meaning that what you value changes.

The Real Value of Practicing A Habit For 21 Days or Longer

People citing Dr. Maxwell Malt focus on the days and miss the important component – that your thinking changes.

Your value system takes a drastic turn when you keep practicing an activity you want to form as a habit.

No, going to the gym will never start to feel easier. If it does, you are not doing it right.

Going to the gym simply gets prioritized because you see why it is helpful. Why you should do it. And keep doing it.

It doesn’t take a minimum of 21 days to form a new habit. It takes a minimum of 21 days to realize that this habit is worth doing regardless of how hard it is to keep practicing it daily.

Embarking on a habit-formation journey gives you the opportunity to figure out what you really value.

Let me give you an example.

Last year, I started tracking my habits daily using a habit tracker.

One of the things I tracked initially was posting daily on Quora – a website where you answer questions from people.

The reason I wanted to do this was to increase the traffic to my site from this platform.

42 days later, I realized that I no longer want to do it.

I realized that even if I say do bring more traffic by doing this. I need to keep doing it for this to work.

But answering generic questions didn’t seem like something I want to do for a lifetime. It didn’t seem valuable to me. That’s why I focused on things that I do want to commit to – writing long pieces of content on my site where I tackle worthy topics.

  • That’s also the reason I quit social media. I stopped carrying about what others think about me online. I simply wanted to find more time for reading books.
  • That’s also the reason I wear primarily black clothes – i.e., become a minimalist. I no longer wanted to waste my money on stuff.
  • That’s also the reason I support small businesses and not big corporations. I value more the work done by individuals than what monopolistic companies trying to dominate the world are doing.
  • Even further, that’s also why I took the time to create a list of good habits. So I can keep making improvements in the areas I consider important.

Personally, I think that people don’t stick to their habits because they value certain things more than others.

You value having fun more than building a business.

You value experiencing the pleasant sensation of eating sweets more than the momentary unpleasant ones coming from eating broccoli.

As for working out…

The hard realization is that you don’t value your body enough to keep showing up every day to exercise.

There you go. I’ve said it.

As mentioned, the 21-rule of habit formation gives you the opportunity to see what you consider worthy.

Most people quit because they think that doing something should become easier after a certain date.

The truth is that persisting in doing something simply allows you to see which things are important for you as a person. Help you figure out what you value.

Do you value having fun more over feeling good in your own skin?

If it’s the former. You’ll keep going out. Partying. Stay up late.

If it’s the latter. You’ll consider what you eat. When you go to bed. And you’ll schedule working out in your days even if you don’t feel like working out.

Some Closing Thoughts

If answering the question “How many days does it take to form a habit?” brought you here. I hope you get your answer.

But I also hope that you found how unimportant the answer is.

The essential thing is figuring out what tasks are worth keeping and what aren’t.

When you stick to a certain activity for 21 days or more. You give yourself the opportunity to figure out if this new thing is valuable enough – for you – to keep doing it.

But it also allows you to re-form your value system.

Even if you weren’t an active person before. Regularly hitting the gym will allow you to see how this activity can positively impact your body, mind, and life in general. Not for just 21 days. But for the rest of your life.

That’s why and how you form an activity as a habit. Not because of some random number of days.

“Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.” Lao Tzu

If you’re interested in even more on the topic of habits.

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Footnotes:

  1. Lally, Phillippa. How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. Online Library.
  2. In the book Peak, K. Anders Ericsson explains the importance of having a good mental representation of the activity you want to master. I recommend reading the book. You can also check my summary: Peak book summary.
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