How long does it take to change a habit?

Back in the 1950s, a plastic surgeon called Maxwell Maltz claimed that it takes a minimum of 21 days to change a habit. He realised that when performing surgery such as an amputation or nose surgery, afterwards it took the patient about 21 days to get used to it. He was so struck by this and other related discoveries that in 1960 he published his observations on behaviour change in a book called Psycho-Cybernetics.

The 21 days theory stuck for a lot of people, although others have chanced upon other numbers, 18 and 28 being popular ones. However, research conducted more recently found that the timeframe is a bit longer — 66 days on average. Carried out by a health psychology researcher at University College London, the study found that depending on the behaviour, the individual and the circumstances, forming a new habit takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days.

Another key finding of the report was that all is not lost if a person slips up here and there. You can still achieve the desired behaviour change, even if you don’t manage it all of the time. So, changing bad habits can be done. It’s a process, mistakes will happen and the end goal won’t necessarily be met in 21 days. But with perseverance, it’s possible to get there.

Perseverance and planning, in fact. In order to effect behaviour change, individuals need to think long and hard before starting out on the process. Ask yourself:

  • What is the habit that needs changing and why?
  • How can it be changed?
  • What obstacles lie in the way?
  • What are the trigger points?
  • What habit do you want to replace it with?

Come up with an action plan and be realistic. Don’t try to change all your habits at the same time. Start with one and build from there. Maybe start with a relatively easy, straightforward one such as taking a lunch break each day or tackling the most urgent tasks first even if they are also the hardest.

Start small and it is less overwhelming. Success will also spur you on to address those more difficult habits — such as changing a negative or hostile relationship pattern with a colleague or addressing a tendency to talk over others in meetings.

Prepare to be ruthless with yourself. Some people find email such a distraction at work and drain on productivity that they only allow themselves to check it at particular times of the day. Or they invest in technology that literally locks them out between certain hours or if they exceed a designated period of usage.

Changing a habit is not always easy, but the end result should be worth it.

Originally published at on September 17, 2015.