21 Day Habit Timeline: How to Form a Habit in 21 Days (Day by Day!)

Elias Scully
Aug 7 · 9 min read

Is there such a thing as 21 day habit? Does it really only take 21 days to form a new habit?

We all want to form good habits quickly and understandably so. Habits are practically beneficial: They are fairly automatic; take little to no effort to perform and basically allow us to do more with less. In fact, thanks to my writing habit, I have been able to to start a personal development blog.)

So asking whether the 21 day habit is a myth is a critical question to ask, so is it really a myth?

1. Can You Form a New Habit in 21 Days?

Based on my experience, I am inclined to say yes. It takes about 21 days to form a new habit.

However, a recent study has described the 21 day habit formation formula as a myth. According to Phillippa Lally; a health psychology researcher at University College London, a new habit usually takes a little more than 2 months — 66 days to be exact — and as much as 254 days until it’s fully formed.

The study was based on the behavior of 96 participants who were asked to pick a habit and practice it for 12 weeks. The participants reported to the researcher how automatic their new behavior felt over time. Undoubtedly, the results varied drastically from one person to another leading the researcher to claim that automaticity (i.e how automatic the new behavior felt over time) takes between three to twelve times longer than 21 days.

This news sent shock waves across the personal development community leading every personal development blogger to retract all their claims about the 21 day formula and to accept the findings of this research.

But I have my doubts.

2. Forming a New Habit in 21 Days Takes Will-Power

Acquiring a new habit, to be sure, is not a walk in the park. Most people struggle with forming and keeping new habits. They lose motivation over time and in the process find themselves off track.

Let me ask you:

  • How many times have your tried to become an early riser and failed?
  • How many times have you tried to keep your inbox clean from junk and other emails?
  • How many times have you tried to commit to a daily 20 minute and not stuck to it?

So it seems like there is some sense in believing that the habit formation journey is long and arduous and that it might take much longer than 21 days.

But I also think that we should not lose sight of people who managed to overcome extraordinary odds in relatively short periods of time. Sometimes it can take a person one crucial moment to stop smoking or drinking and acquire sobriety. It can take a person one instance to decide to write every day and finally finish writing his/her novel. It can also take a person one flash of a second to decide to eat healthy food and lose weight.

  • Why aren’t we trying to learn from these people instead of those who participated in the experiment?
  • Why are all these bloggers giving in to the findings of the research?
  • Why has the average (unmotivated) person’s experience become our standard for what’s possible?
  • Shouldn’t all these personal development bloggers be the first to think about the research findings critically?

3. The 21 Day Habits Formation Guide

I believe that habit formation is a function of three key criteria:

(1) Level of Commitment

(2) Internal and External Accountability

(3) Size of the Habit

3.1 Commit for 21 Days to Form a New Habit

If you want the 21 day habit formation guide to work, you have to recognize that forming a new habit is no easy undertaking. It won’t get formed on its own. And for that reason, you have to decide why and how important is that habit to you.

Ask yourself this:

  • What difference is it going to make to your day?
  • How will that habit help you achieve your goals?
  • How will that habit impact your relationships?

Once you’ve answered these questions, you have to formulate your answers in an emotionally captivating language. By articulating them in an emotionally charged way, you are creating a new “narrative” of who you are. You are giving life to your new habit.

Tell yourself this story before you go to bed. These mental image becomes the psychological glue, if you will, that holds you and your new habit together. Without that story, the habit won’t stick.

To keep yourself from getting off course, you would benefit from adding sounds, and even sensations of smell and touch to your story as you narrate it to yourself. You have to see yourself as already practicing your habit and living with its results. You’re not a person who wakes up early, you’re an early riser. You’re a runner. You’re a writer. You’re wealthy. By consciously identifying yourself as such, you’re demanding of yourself to work on the skills that will help you get there. The stronger and the more captivating your reasons are for your new habit, the more quickly you will acquire it and the more robust it’s going to be.

On the other hand, bland and unimaginative stories are easily forgotten. In fact, people who don’t tell themselves captivating stories are likely to lose their motivation so much so that they forget why they decided to take on their new habit in the first place. This happens because the story they told themselves wasn’t personal enough for the new habit to stick.

3.2 Accountability Plan to From a Habit in 21 Days

If you could hold yourself accountable internally through your own conscience; and externally through an accountability system like a coach or a social support group, then you can form a habit more quickly than if you didn’t have those systems, and the better these systems are, the better the results you are going to get.

When it comes to holding yourself accountable, it’s imperative that you be your own best friend. You want to encourage yourself to stay on track and remind yourself of how far you’ve gotten. You hold yourself accountable from a deep sense of love and caring to see yourself become the best you can be. That’s very different from the traditional approaches of policing yourself…those approaches (if not used wisely) are counter-productive and can cause you to dislike the habit and even stop practicing it altogether.

Sometimes it can be a real struggle to try to do it all on our own. There is always a support group behind every hero. Getting family members or friends enlisted to help you stay on track can make a dramatic difference in your journey.

Most people, however, prefer to work with a professional. In this regard, a coach is an appropriate choice. A coach can give you exact recommendations that are specifically tailored to your needs. As an impartial observer, a coach will honestly tell you how you’re performing and what you need to tweak. So if you’re looking for new ways and shortcuts to overcome obstacles, move past failure, and realize your goals, then working with the right coach can make a distinctive difference to your pursuits.

3.3 Determine the Size of the Habit You Want to Form

If your target habit is too big; like running a marathon, then you will not acquire that habit in 21 days. Similarly, if your goal is to write 2000 words daily without the proper training, then it might take you a long time to turn this into an automatic thing.

Break your habits into mini-habits. These are small achievable activities that are easy to do on a daily basis. For example, require yourself to write every day instead of trying to reach a certain word count. The mini-habit of writing every day (even if you wrote 50–100 words) is a key stepping stone towards realizing the goal of writing 2000 words a day. Notice that after you’re comfortable with the habit of writing 50–100 words a day, you can now ask of yourself to commit to writing 150–200 words a day and so on and so forth until you reach your target goal.

For a tool that can help you write better with less effort, I recommend Grammarlydisclosure: if you use my referral link, you will get to their baseline offer and I will receive a small commission (at no cost to you.)

The same thing goes for running — your goal is to want to run every day and have the desire to do so without too much struggle. Once you’re comfortable enough with your habit and you’re able to do it consistently, then you can take it up a notch and set higher goals — like running quarter of a marathon every day — and then slowly turn this into a habitual activity.

4. An Effective Strategy for Habit Formation

The strategy that I have used to help me build my habits and automate them is, what I call, the “Habit Graduation Strategy.”

Here, I resolved to see my 21 day journey to forming a new habit as a gradual work in progress. My goal was to take small but consistent action every single day and gradually build up my habit.

The important thing for me was to choose an action that I could do every single day without too much resistance. I started with something small. And once I mastered that, I upped the challenge and resolved to do something a tiny bit more challenging. I then resolved to do that every single day.

So, instead of promising yourself to run on the treadmill for 30 minutes every day for 21 days, start by running for 10 minutes on the first day (and do restrain yourself if you feel like you want to run more), and the next day you run for 11 minutes, and the day after for 12 minutes, etc. Within 21 days you will be running for a little more than 30 minutes. In 2 months, you will be running for an hour as result of this 1 minute incremental increase.

Be careful not to challenge yourself too much early on. As you grow into your new habit, reflect on your progress and increase the challenge just a tiny bit.

Remember, every time you increase the challenge too much or too fast, you won’t make progress and you will lose motivation. So pick a challenge that is within your limits. If you’re having an especially tough time (in committing to your run for example), then you can increase your time by just 30 seconds a day. Seconds and minutes will add up quickly and you will surprise yourself by how easy and fun it is. Remember, you have to keep making progress…you can’t expect yourself to run a marathon on the day of the marathon.

5. What to Expect on your 21 Day Habit Formation Plan

Here is what I have experienced on my 21 day habit formation plan. You may experience the same things.

Here it goes:

5.1 Days 1–3

This is where your motivation is at an all-time high. During those days, you go above and beyond to practice your habit. Your habit is your favorite thing in the world at this stage. From here it starts to get challenging.

5.2 Days 4–10

Most people quit between 4–10 days. What to do? Look for images, quotes, videos and tell your new “story” in an emotionally captivating language. Your task on days 4 to 10 is to reinforce your goals with the power of imagery. Once you pass the 10 day mark, your habit will become less of a challenge to perform.

5.3 Days 11–14

Don’t ease your foot off the gas pedal just yet. Your task on these days is to note what difference this has made to your body and your day. Talk publicly about it, or start a blog — (see how to start a successful blog). You are 2/3 of the way done. This is a mini-celebration.

5.4 Days 15–20

Start marking your calendar for how many days you have left to finish your course. Each day you mark off will make you feel really good about how far you’ve gotten. This is the last 1/3 of the course.

5.5 Day 21 and After

By this time, your habit should become part of your daily routine. Your focus from here on should be on the long term benefits of keeping this habit part of your daily routine and what further progress you can make if you continue this habit.

If you liked this post, feel free check out my blog for more!


Originally published at https://www.believeandempower.com on August 7, 2019.

Elias Scully

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