How to Make Writing a “Habit”

An evidence-based look at making writing a habit for myself in 60 days because 21/90 doesn’t seem to be real

David Drake
Jun 23 · 10 min read
Photo by: David Drake — Slow and Deliberate Writing from the 22nd of June, 2021

Author’s note: I’ve decided that writing is important enough to me that I want to make a regular practice of it. What follows is an exploration of what it takes to develop a habit. Thus, we will begin this experiment together on day 2 of 60 for developing the habit of writing. We will discover whether writing allows me to experience the inner joy and satisfaction required to devote the time necessary to make it a habitual practice. Because time, quite simply, is the most valuable resource we have.

oing some research on the Internet regarding how to create a habit led me to a great number of mentions regarding different timescales for developing a habit. Searching for words like “habit” and “how long” in Google provide a a wealth of suggestions; most circling the idea of 21 / 90. That is: 21 days to establish a habit and 90 days to solidify it as something you keep in your life. There are books, blog posts, and plenty of publications on Medium surrounding the concept like:

Being a person who likes to dig into the source of things, I attempted to track down where the evidence for those magic numbers came from. I stumbled upon a blog post which informed me the numbers came from a self-help book from 1960 by Dr. Maxwell Maltz entitled “Psycho-Cybernetics — A New Technique for Using Your Subconscious Power.”

Cover of Psycho-Cybernetics by Dr. Maxwell Maltz — Published 1960

The origin for the 21 days was reaffirmed by other sources so I decided to dig further. Dr. Maltz seems to have come to this conclusion based on his experience as a plastic surgeon. From there, it seems, the truth has been picked up and re-shared, probably because of how nice 21 and 90 sound. One can easily visualize and understand 3 weeks and 3 months. But, looking at a full quote from the book itself, it becomes clear that Maltz was not basing this on any research regarding creating a habit at all. Here’s a quote from the book in a longer form so you can see for yourself:

“It usually requires a minimum of about 21 days to effect any perceptible change in a mental image. Following plastic surgery it takes about 21 days for the average patient to get used to his new face. When an arm or leg is amputated the “phantom limb” persists for about 21 days. People must live in a newhouse for about three weeks before it begins to “seem like home.” These, and many other commonly observed phenomenatend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.”

— Maltz, Maxwell (1960). Psycho-Cybernetics, XXIII.

Indeed, a great deal of common idioms regarding medicine, philosophy, health, performance, and ways of living, came from a proliferation of writing on the subject during the ’60s and ’70s. However, a lot of those explorations and publications have been (thankfully) disproven with modern research. Research on developing a habit is not an exception to this. Instead of simply applying the observations of plastic surgery patients to the development of habits, we have focused research and outcomes regarding the subject. Before I go on, I do have to give some credit to the followers and proliferators of the “21 / 90” rule. Dr. Maxwell does eventually specify the 21 days should be applied to a habit:

“Habitually, you put on either your right shoe first or your left shoe. Habitually, you tie your shoes by either passing the right-hand lace around behind the left-hand lace, or vice versa. Tomorrow morning determine which shoe you put on first and how you tie your shoes. Now, consciously decide that for the next 21 days you are going to form a new habit by putting on the other shoe first and tying your laces in a different way. Now, each morning as you decide to put on your shoes in a certain manner, let this simple act serve as a reminder to change other habitual ways of thinking, acting and feeling throughout that one day.”

— Maltz, Maxwell (1960). Psycho-Cybernetics, 100.

lthough the idea of 21 / 90 sounds pretty fun and easy to apply, I wanted to find some real research on the topic and apply it to my current situation. Luckily there is published research on the topic that we can find and pull results from. Starting with “A New Look at Habits and the Habit–Goal Interface” by Wendy Wood and David T. Neal from Duke University, we can start to explore the fact that habits and goals are intertwined. The paper lays out foundations for a new way to look at habits and how they can be achieved. While it doesn’t prescribe a particular number of days necessary to develop a habit, it does reinforce that having a goal is a valuable part.

“Goals spur habit learning. Goals guide habits most fundamentally by providing the initial outcome-oriented impetus for response repetition. In this sense, habits often are a vestige of past goal pursuit. This is not to say that people’s habits always are in line with their goals. By definition, unwanted or bad habits are in conflict with goals, and furthermore action slips sometimes involve the performance of an unwanted habit as opposed to an intended response. However, given that habits often originate in goal pursuit, the outcomes of habits should generally accord with what people wish to achieve.”

— Wood, W., & Neal, D. T. (2007). A new look at habits and the habit-goal interface. Psychological Review, 114(4), 843–863. DOI: 10.1037/0033–295X.114.4.843.

Wood, W., & Neal, D. T. (2007). A new look at habits and the habit-goal interface. Psychological Review, 114(4), 843–863. DOI: 10.1037/0033–295X.114.4.843.

So, this would seem to indicate we’re on the right track with having a goal in mind, and setting out to achieve that goal through repeated behaviors. But, how long do we have to do this for? Should I expect that I’ll have a new habit developed over the course of 3 weeks? 1 month? Do I need to wait an entire year? For an evidence-based answer to this question, we can turn to further research. Luckily there was a study that was conducted in 2009 by Phillippa Lally, Cornelia H. M. Van Jaarsveld, Henry W. W. Potts, and Jane Wardle at the University College London. Titled: “How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real worldy,” the researchers were able to show that it takes about 66 days for behavior to reach “automaticity” which is:

“The ability to do things without occupying the mind with the low-level details required, allowing it to become an automatic response pattern or habit.”

— Wikipedia (2021). Automaticity.

Recording the data for the conclusion was done by having the participants perform three different tasks over the course of a period of time until the cognitive overhead for performing those tasks was considered “automatic.” The tasks that they performed were:

  • Eating a piece of fruit with lunch
  • Drinking a glass of water after breakfast
  • Eating a piece of fruit when watching the TV/computer in the evening
  • Doing 50 sit-ups after morning coffee
  • Walking for 10 minutes after breakfast
  • Doing 15 minute exercises before dinner

etermining whether the participants had reached a sufficient level of behavior to be considered a habit, was the responsibility of the “Self-Report Habit Index” (SRHI). What the hell is an SRHI? I’m glad you asked. In 2003, Bas Verplanken from the University of Tromsø in Norway, and Sheina Orbell from the University of Essex in the U.K. posed a question:

“When was the last time you performed a new behavior? In everyday life, it does not occur so often that we do something for the first time: Repetition is the rule, rather than the exception.”

— Verplanken, B. and Orbell, S. (2003). Reflections on Past Behavior: A Self-Report Index of Habit Strength. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 33: 1313–1330. DOI: 10.1111/j.1559–1816.2003.tb01951.x

Answering whether a new behavior had been developed required a form of measurement that had not yet been established. Thus, they proposed the Self-Report Habit Index. This would allow researchers to determine whether their participants’ new behavior had reached a level of automaticity necessary to be considered “a habit.”

“The Self-Report Habit Index” — Verplanken, B. and Orbell, S. (2003). Reflections on Past Behavior: A Self-Report Index of Habit Strength. Appendix A. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 33: 1313–1330.

Behavior X is something…

  1. I do frequently.
  2. I do automatically.
  3. I do without having to consciously remember.
  4. that makes me feel weird if I do not do it.
  5. I do without thinking.
  6. that would require effort not to do it.
  7. that belongs to my (daily, weekly, monthly) routine.
  8. I start doing before I realize I’m doing it.
  9. I would find hard not to do.
  10. I have no need to think about doing.
  11. that’s typically “me.”
  12. I have been doing for a long time.

How does one actually answer those questions, however? What method should be used to determine whether or not I am actually doing something “frequently” or whether “Writing is something that belongs to my (daily, weekly, monthly) routine?” Should I simply say: “Yes, writing is something I do frequently,” or “No, writing is something I do automatically?”

For that, we turn to something called the “Likert Scale.” Writing for New York University in 1932, Rensis Likert was not satisfied with our abilities of measuring behavioral traits or characteristics using simple mathematics and “yes” or “no” responses.

“Attempts to measure the traits of character and personality are nearly as old as techniques for the measurement of intellectual capacity, yet it can scarcely be claimed that they have achieved a similar suecess. Part, at least, of the difficulty has lain in the statistical difficulties which are encountered when everyday aspects of social behavior, ordinarily handled as qualitative affairs, are treated from the mathematical point of view.”

— Rensis, Likert (1932). A Technique for the Measurement of Attitudes. Archives of Psychology, Vol. 22, pp. 5.

“Yes” and “no” were not enough for a survey of research participants to get a full breadth of understanding regarding traits of character or personality. “Agree” or “disagree” did not offer sufficient vocabulary to apply mathematics and statistics for generating. Likert set out to develop a new standard by which we could determine whether human behavior, or opinion, was being aptly measured, and thus, reported. To do this, he proposed using a multi-point system with a series of different qualities regarding whether or not a statement was true. This type of scale has become the de facto standard for determining the “trueness” of a given statement in everything from experiencing a level of physical pain, to answering a question about developing habits, to “strongly agreeing” or “sometimes agreeing” to a survey required for employment at your local chain retail store.

And so, upon a 7-point Likert scale, the researchers determined that it took around 66 days for the modeling of their graphs to plateau out to a point that it appeared a “habit” had been formed.

Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C.H.M., Potts, H.W.W. and Wardle, J. (2010), How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol., 40: 998–1009. DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.674

hat does this all mean for my goal of developing a writing habit? From the research and findings presented here, it looks like the evidence points to 60 days as a decent place to start; not 21 days.

  • The Likert scale seems to be a very popular standard for answering questions to determine behaviors
  • There are a standardized series of questions (SHRI) to ask oneself regarding whether a habit is being developed
  • Already conducted research indicates that around 66 days are necessary to actually call behaviors a “habit” using the Likert scale applied to an SHRI

With that, I am challenging myself to write every single day for 60 days. I’ll do my best to put it here on Medium even though I enjoy writing in other formats. I have found, from prior experience, that publicly declaring an alteration in my behavior has been helpful for me to affect the change necessary to achieve the goals I set out to accomplish.

I’ve been able to keep up the behavior of not eating lunch at my desk for over 7 years now and I feel a lot better for it. Everyone I have introduced the idea to, that has implemented the idea, has also found it to be very beneficial to their professional and personal life. I’ve also achieved some other forms of self-discipline that have had a tremendous impact on myself in every way possible. But I’ll save sharing that for another day of writing. For now, it’s 12:00pm Pacific and I need to step away from my desk to enjoy some lunch. I’ll publish what I wrote in my notebook, which is the leading photograph of this article, a bit later.

Day 2 of 60 for developing a writing habit.

Day 1 of 60 for developing a writing habit:

Day 3 of 60 for developing a writing habit:

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