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Episode 6: The Myth of 21-Day Habit Change

Video Highlights

Hi everybody.

How are you doing? I hope you’re having a great week.

This week we’re going to talk about the myth of 21-day habit change. This is one of the most pervasive things I’ve run into throughout my whole life. Our culture seems to have this that it only takes 21 days to change any habit.

I think if you look around at the big, wide world, it’s fairly obvious that it probably takes longer for some people in some instances to change a habit.

Honestly, if we only had to do stuff for three weeks to make it automatic, everyone would eat well, everyone would exercise, everyone would look great, everyone would be nice … all those different things we would love to see happen in our own lives and in everyone else’s life. Yet, that’s not what we see.

There’s got to be something a little bit wrong with that idea. Let’s face it — 21 days. Most of us can stick it out that long. Modern research has been looking at this. They ask, “All right, so where did this originate?” Most likely, the 21-day idea originated years ago with a gentleman named Maxwell Maltz in a book he wrote. And it’s been spoken of almost as gospel ever since.

Modern research is showing us that 21 days only works sometimes. Here’s the deal. If you’re trying to change something really simple in your life, for instance, you get up and say, “You know what, before I eat breakfast, I want to drink a glass of water. Maybe, I’ll be a little bit more full and maybe I’ll eat a little less breakfast.” That’s a common thing a lot of people talk to me about.

In most cases, if you can, set a reminder every day (one of the techniques we talked about in previous blogs), set a system in place to remind you to drink that water. In about three weeks, twenty days, twenty-one days, it’s highly likely that will become fairly automatic. Because it’s such a simple thing to do. However, that success only applies to exceptionally simple habits.

If you start thinking about something more complex, “Hey, I want to start working out.” There’s a lot that goes in on that. You’ve got to figure out where, when, with whom, what kind of exercise. One of the challenges that we see is that people think they’re failing all the time to install good habits in their lives because it’s not happening and in three weeks they’re like, “Oh, I quit.” Every January, we see people doing that, they make a New Year’s resolution. They buy a gym membership and usually, by the end of January, mid February, they’re done.

I want you to cut yourself a little bit of slack. Start to realize that when you’re talking about a more complicated habit, you need to be thinking literally in terms of 60- or 90-day or even year-long changes. Some of the research is showing us that for more complicated habits, we really start seeing a significant change around the 90-day mark.

Again, depending on how significant it is and how addictive the bad habit you’re trying to break was, you could be looking at 200, 250, 365 days before the change begins to feel automatic. That’s really what good habits are about. Doing good things for ourselves relatively automatically.

We like to say at Z Health that persistence is king. Whenever we talk about motivation, we talk about change. Whenever we talk with clients and athletes, we say, “Listen, I want you to persist. I don’t want you buying into this myth that, ‘Hey, if I just do it for 21 days, I’ve got it made.’” It doesn’t really work that way, number one.

Picture of two white arrows going in two different directions, one says 'habits' and the other 'change' with someone standing where the two arrows start together.

Number two, people think that if they fail — let’s say they’ve been doing their new habit for 19 days and they skip day 20 — that, “Oh my gosh, I have to start over from scratch.” That’s not how it works.

The fact is, whenever you repetitively practice something, you’re rewiring your brain. If you skip a day, especially if you’ve been doing it for a period of time, all that wiring doesn’t come undone. It’s just a small delay. The encouragement we always make is number one, don’t buy into the 21-day myth. Persist.

Number two, if you have a bad day or two here and there, whatever, don’t feel like you’ve ruined all of your progress. Just say, “Hey, I’ve had a couple days off, I’ve rested, I’ve recovered. Now I’m ready to re-engage.”

If you can adopt those two things, your ability to change your habits is going to grow tremendously. They’ll allow you to really shape your life in a way that’s much more advantageous for you.

As I said, remember, 21-day only really works for tiny, simplified habits. If you take a day off, that’s okay. It takes time for your brain to make changes anyway. Sometimes, a day off is a great way to restore and improve the function that’s going on neurologically.

One last thing I want to bring up; Is there a way to take advantage of these techniques in order to improve our bigger habits?

Here’s what I want you to think about.

Let’s imagine that I’m trying to change how I eat. I’m trying to get rid of gluten or whatever. A lot of people are going on gluten-free diets and other things like that these days. Could you imagine breaking that down into a really, really small habit? In other words, rather than saying, “I have to get rid of everything white in my house. No white flour, no white sugar, never eat a piece of bread again,” (which is too huge a shift to imagine accomplishing it in such a short window) could you say, “All right, when I think about a regular day, I almost always have toast for breakfast.”

Now, you’re starting to take a really big habit you want to change and go, “For the next 21 days, can I replace that toast that I’ve been having with maybe gluten-free bread?”

All of a sudden, you’re making a very small change that fits into the habit change window, so that in three weeks time, maybe you’ve begun to make real progress toward a bigger habit change. Simply by breaking down habits into smaller components.

That’s really the only way I want you to think about applying that 21-day habit change myth in your life: breaking things down, making them simple. I want you to really get good at this stuff.

To help with that, at the bottom of this video, I’ve included some links. There are some great books out there that we recommend. Please check them out.

As I said, if I could give you any gift, if I could give my children any gift, it would be to understand yourself and your brain well enough to know how to work with it and not against it to change habits. Our habits make us who we are and who we’re going to become.

Again, I encourage you to check out the resources below.

I hope that you have a fantastic week.

I look forward to talking to you next week.


Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

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