In the spirit of the “New Year, New You” season, here is a gentle reminder about habit formation as it applies to resolutions: Contrary to the colloquial wisdom and despite what certain apps and books would have you believe, it does not really take 21 days to form a new habit. So that shiny new behavior you’re trying to adopt — eating breakfast every morning, going to the gym after work, or whatever — probably won’t have really set in by the 21st of January, and there’s no need to despair if it hasn’t. Instead, at least according to one interesting piece of recent research (which, by the way, I’ve written about before), it could be tough going until March: It takes 66 days, on average, to form a new habit.
Back in 2009, University College London psychologist Phillippa Lally investigated the timeline of habit formation and published her results in the European Journal of Social Psychology. (A PDF of the entire paper is available here, if you’re interested.) She instructed 96 volunteers to pick a health-focused habit, like drinking a bottle of water with lunch, and periodically asked them whether they’d succeeded in sticking to the behavior, and how automatic it had felt. Sometimes, according to Lally’s results, it takes much longer than three weeks for a habit to feel automatic — up to 254 days for her participants. Other times, it can take as little as 18 days, she found.
In her paper, Lally expands on her findings like so:
The range of times to reach a plateau shows that it can take a large number of repetitions for an individual to reach their highest level of automaticity for some behaviours, and therefore creating new habits will require self-control to be maintained for a significant period before the desired behaviours acquire the necessary automaticity to be performed without self-control.
Incidentally, the health behavior that was toughest for people to do automatically was exercise; that’s not entirely surprising, as it’s a more complex action than drinking water with a meal. Overall, these findings are a reminder to be a little patient with yourself if sticking to your New Year’s resolution is feeling a little harder than you initially thought it would.