Changing your habits


Bad habits are like a comfortable bed, easy to get into, but hard to get out of”.

So how long does it take to change our habits?

Maxwell Maltz was a plastic surgeon in the 1950s began noticing patterns among his patients. When Dr. Maltz would perform an operation, he found that it would take the patient about 21 days to get used to seeing their new face. Similarly, when a patient had an arm or a leg amputated, Maltz noticed that the patient would sense a phantom limb for about 21 days before adjusting to the new situation.

These experiences prompted Maltz to think about his own adjustment period to changes and new behaviors, and he noticed that it also took himself about 21 days to form a new habit. Maltz wrote “These, and many other commonly observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.” In 1960, Maltz published that quote in a book called Psycho-Cybernetics.

People have tended to forget that Maltz said a minimum of 21 days and shortened it to “It takes 21 days to form a new habit”. But what Maltz actually said was that this was the minimum amount of time needed to adapt to a new change.

How long does it really take to form a habit?

It takes an average 66 days to form a new habit, according to research by Phillippa Lally and colleagues from the Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Centre based at UCL Epidemiology and Public Health (2009).

The study examined the habits of 96 people over a 12-week period. Each person chose one new habit for the 12 weeks and reported each day on whether or not they did the behaviour and how automatic the behavior felt.

In Lally’s study, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit. How long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behaviour, the person, and the circumstances.

If you want to set your expectations appropriately, it will probably take you anywhere from two months to eight months to build a new behaviour into your life — not 21 days. Interestingly, the researchers also found that “missing one opportunity to perform the behavior did not materially affect the habit formation process.”


Habit breaking tips:

  • Change one thing at a time
  • Find someone to support you on your journey of change
  • Take it one day at a time
  • Prepare for moments of set back and don’t let the setbacks get you down, notice what you can learn from them
  • Reward yourself and acknowledge your progress.

Contact Rachel for more details around her new 3-month

Change your Habits Wellbeing Programme.

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