How Long Does It Take to Master a New Habit?

You may have heard it said that it takes 21 days of repetition to solidify a new habit. Twenty-one days seems like a short period, making the formation of new habits appear easy and attainable. But is this true?

The answer is both yes and no. Yes, forming new habits is perfectly attainable for anyone. However, it’s not guaranteed that these habits will stick after just 21 days. The origin of the 21-day myth can be traced back to Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon who noticed his patients took about 21 days to adapt to their new physical appearance after surgery. In 1960, Maltz shared his observations, suggesting that it takes a minimum of 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to form.

In reality, the process of habit formation is far more complex and varied than the 21-day myth suggests. Recent studies have shown that the time it takes to form a habit can range from 18 to 254 days, depending on various factors such as the complexity of the behavior, individual differences, and environmental influences. The formation of a habit is also not a linear process, and individuals may experience setbacks and challenges along the way.

So, what does the true process look like? Instead of counting days, we can break this journey down into phases:

Phase 1: Initiation

In the first phase, you consciously decide to adopt a new behavior. This can feel a bit like a honeymoon phase, as you will likely be excited and eager to begin something new. While you may feel like this is the “new you” and that it will stick, it is important to remain realistic. Setting specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals is essential to provide direction and focus. Start small to make your habit manageable over time.

Phase 2: Repetition

Consistency is key during this stage as you aim to perform the desired action regularly. To support your efforts, create a conducive environment, establish reminders, and track your progress. This phase is typically where you’ll experience the most resistance and is where most new habits falter. Celebrate small victories along the way to maintain motivation and reinforce positive associations with your new habit.

Phase 3: Adaptation

During this phase, you have likely overcome any reluctance, and the new habit begins to feel more natural and integrated. You may find yourself performing the new habit with less conscious effort. While you have technically reached your goal, it’s crucial to remain vigilant and address any obstacles or setbacks that may arise. Which brings us to our final phase:

Phase 4: Maintenance

Your new habit has become a stable part of your lifestyle. At this point, the behavior has been ingrained, and you perform it automatically, without significant mental effort. Now, the habit needs to be maintained, or you may begin to revert. Maintenance requires ongoing commitment and self-discipline. It’s essential to stay mindful of your progress, regularly evaluate your goals, and make adjustments as needed. While maintenance will take significantly less effort on your part, you want to ensure you continue to reinforce the now-established habit. Surround yourself with a supportive network, engage in self-reflection, and continue to reinforce the positive outcomes associated with your habit.

Good habits allow us to execute tasks more efficiently and effectively, freeing up our time and headspace to sharpen our focus on new issues and ideas. Join us in our event, Habits of Highly Successful Women,” and learn how to determine what habits to cultivate and embrace, as well as which habits to break – and how.”