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Can we form a new habit in 21 days?

According to the good-old Cambridge dictionary, a habit is ‘something that you do often and regularly, sometimes without knowing that you’re doing it: I always buy the same brand of toothpaste out of habit.’

If you drive, think about parallel parking. Uttering these two words is enough to make any learner driver break out in a cold sweat, but if we’ve been driving for a long time it’s second nature. It’s a habit.

We are wondrous creatures of habit. According to a study, 45% of everything we do, think and say is driven by our habits. [1]

We all have ‘bad’ habits or things we’d like to start incorporating into our every-day lives, such as exercise, eating healthier, a spot of lunchtime mindfulness, going to bed at a certain time, meditation, writing down our gratitude’s, or taking a breath before ranting at the kids/partner/housemates/dog (delete as appropriate).

So, how long does it take to develop a new habit?

There’s a common misconception that forming a new habit takes 21 days. That is a load of twaddle! The myth manifested after a cosmetic surgeon, Maxwell Maltz, published a book in the 1960s with the catchy title ‘Psycho-Cybernetics’. Mr Maltz observed that people who had lost a limb took on average 21 days to adjust. He then made a gigantic leap and reasoned that it must be the same for all big changes. Et voila! The myth of habits taking 21 days to form was born.

In actual fact, habits can take between a measly 18 days to an astonishing and slightly annoying 245 days to form, according to a study by the University College London. The study found that people adopting new habits like exercising or eating fruit daily, took an average of 66 days before the behaviour become automatic. [2]

That sounds like a whole lot of effort!

So how can we form a new habit in as short a time as possible?

It turns out, there’s a rather helpful framework that can make forming new habits a lot easier.

Step 1. Decide on a trigger

Relying on willpower or self-motivation is fool’s game when trying to form new habits. Read our blog ‘Why motivation isn’t about shooting for the moon’ to find out why. Instead of randomly inserting a new habit into our day and expecting it will become second nature, the first step is to tie it to something we do already like brushing our teeth. The trigger for our new habit should be a daily behaviour we don’t give much thought to such as getting dressed, making breakfast, having a shower, watching Come Dine with Me, etc.

Sam, one of our wellbeing warriors, brushes her teeth and does some balancing and strengthening exercises her physio recommended. Don’t laugh too much she’s still forming the habit…

It might not work to do two things at the same time so doing a spot of exercise after we brush our teeth or before breakfast might be a better idea.

Step 2. Easy does it!

It’s very tempting to get overly excited and do too much, too soon. This can lead to giving up when the new habit starts to feel massive, overwhelming, or time-consuming.

“A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.” Anthony Trollope, Victorian novelist

The important word here is “small”. Starting to form a new habit is less about the results to begin with and more about making it a regular reality. As human beings, we follow the law of the least effort! We just do the easiest thing. That’s because new behaviours tend to need an awful lot of work and because change is hard!

So instead of setting ourselves up to fail, pick a new habit that is incredibly easy and do it for a few minutes a day!

Step 3. Enlist some cheerleaders

Last but not least, we want to keep doing things that make us feel good. If there’s not an immediate positive result it can be tempting to jack our new habit in. To help us feel ‘the love’, be celebrated, and applauded enlist our friends and family as cheerleaders! This will help us to stay motivated even when the chips are down.

And we don’t need our Auntie Edna to don pompoms and stand at the side of the road cheering us on as we leg-it up and down the street. Something as simple as a WhatsApp group or a quick video call can be enough to have our loved ones tell us how utterly awesome we are and encourage us to keep going.


Reality check. Let’s not worry about all the things we think we “should” do. Beating ourselves over the head with guilt and empty resolutions doesn’t work. Instead, pick one new habit to work on first that’s easy and makes us feel good! And if we miss a day or two, that’s ok, just keep going!


1. Habits – A Repeat Performance (2006). Association for Psychological Science.

2. How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world (2010). European Journal of Social Psychology.




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