21 days to form a habit? Bullshit!

We’re in such a rush these days, aren’t we? Whatever we want, we want it yesterday. Unfortunately, things usually take a lot longer than that. To get any kind of good result, we usually have to take some kind of action regularly, over a long period of time. Especially if it involves learning a skill. This is where the idea of habits comes in – you make a habit of the action you need to take, and do it everyday automatically. Then, somewhere down the line, the result will just happen – if you can wait that long.

“Whatever we want, we want it yesterday.”

The standard self-help advice for installing a new habit is to do the activity on a daily basis, for 21 consecutive days. Thirty days is also popular. The idea seems to originate from Maxwell Maltz’s famous book, Psycho-Cybernetics. Maltz was a plastic surgeon, and noticed it took around 21 days for people to become accustomed to their new appearances, or for ‘phantom limb’ sensations to disappear. He later linked his observation into theories of self-image, and the 21 day rule came to be.

Despite its popularity, the 21 day rule has never been tested empirically, to my knowledge. I’ve even read sites claiming that 30 days is overkill when forming a habit. These are all sweeping generalisations, obviously. It would depend on exactly what you meant by ‘habit’, and the nature of the behaviour you’re trying to establish.

Repetition over a period of time seems like a sensible way to form a habit; but what if the habit involves lots of smaller behaviours and tasks? If the 21 day rule is accurate, would you need to multiple the amount of sub-tasks by 21, to get the true amount of time required?

Take something like healthy living. Within that, you’ve got exercise, healthy eating, not smoking, and so on. Within that, you’ve got stretching, weights, cardio, eating whole foods, vegetables, no processed foods, and so on. If you’ve ever seen someone try to do all this at once, you’ve seen someone fail (in less than 21 days).

Twenty-one days is an improvement on ‘yesterday’, but maybe it’s still a bit short. If you can install just one of the above, say, eating no processed foods, you’d probably be better off one-year down the line than if you tried all of the above for 3-4 weeks, spread out over that same year (each followed by a week of bingeing after you burn out). If you turned a new point from that list into a habit every 21, 30, or even 60 days, the long term benefits are not only greater, but more sustainable too.

This is a completely testable idea. At the moment, I’m trying to become more organised and productive. I’m overcommitted at the moment, I have this site and a few other sites to run, I’m writing up my dissertation for submission to a journal, plus normal stuff on top of that like the gym and my day job. While I was at university, I was similarly swamped, and bought the classic productivity book Getting Things Done (GTD), by David Allen.

Here’s GTD in a nutshell: Write down everything that you need to do or plan to do in your life. Then store all these things in a system which alerts you when each thing needs to be done. Simple. By doing this, you get everything ‘off your mind’, and you never feel overwhelmed. You know the system will let you know when you have something to do, so you can relax until then.

It works exceptionally well. You most important thing to do is always at your fingertips, you never get that “what should I do next?” feeling, and you don’t feel so overwhelmed that you seek out your preferred method of escapism (beer and films for me).

The only problem for me, was that the system falls flat after a few weeks. I set it up, it runs perfectly for a while, then it gradually deteriorates until it no longer exists. Then I start again.

This is apparently a common problem with GTD – it’s too much. Leo Babauta, of Zen Habits, follows a similar philosophy to me. He created a book to supplement GTD, called Zen To Done, which breaks the GTD system down into 10 parts. You employ only one or two of these each month, until the whole thing becomes habitual. I bought Zen To Done as it seems ideal for me: I’m probably not going to get any less busy over the next few years, and if it takes 10 months to get to the finished product, so what? It’ll be less stressful, much less effort, and a perfect test of my theory (for myself at least).

I’ll let you know how it’s going each month. In the meantime, if you want to join me in my experiment, feel free. It’s easy, just pick something you want to do, break it down into 10-12 things, and add them in, one month at a time. Then, if you can, compare your progress after a year to the previous year. I’ll bet you did better. This is not new advice: every school kid hears about the tortoise and the hare. The tortoise won, remember. 🙂


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