With the start of the new year, a lot of us are thinking, what we can do to better ourselves? If you’re one of these people, I’m betting you’ve heard it takes 21 days to form a habit.
In 1960, a plastic surgeon named Maxwell Maltz published a book called Psycho-Cybernetics in which he noted that amputees take 21 days on average to adjust to the loss of the limb.
And like most things, the internet found it somehow, took it, and ran with it.
If you Google, 21 days to form a habit you’ll find a slew of articles going back and forth on the concept. But when you look at the images, you find what people really believe or at least want to believe.
Anyone who has tried to do something new, every day for 21 days, knows how challenging this is. It’s challenging because they probably picked something that is hard for them. No one challenges themselves to brush their teeth every day for 21 days.
On the flip side, anyone who has managed to do a new thing for 21 days knows that there isn’t some magical awakening at the end of the time where suddenly you can do this thing with great ease.
This is where the 21 days concept is inherently flawed. We’re all different people. Some things are going to be harder for some people than others and more importantly, a habit isn’t formed in 21 days. It’s formed in every day that you do it. It literally means, “a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.”
When you try to pick up a new thing for a set number of days, you’re not thinking in the mindset of habit forming. You’re thinking in a span of time. That’s not a habit. Like the time I tried to do something every day that I had never done before in an effort to experience more of life. I think I lasted 17 days and I did feel rather accomplished but the feeling was fleeting and I didn’t accomplish my overall goal of living more fully. Maybe in those 17 days I was a more adventurous person but it didn’t last because I gave up. I didn’t pace myself like you would when you want to keep doing something for a long time.
The other problem with the idea of 21 days to form a habit is how you perceive the goal you’ve just set up. Every day you don’t start, the task becomes harder. Let’s say you want to be a more consistent runner. Every day you don’t run, the task grows into a mountain. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have quantifiable goals. But when you want to make a change in yourself, there is no beginning, middle, and end. There’s just now and what you’re doing or not doing. If you want to be a runner or be a better runner or a more consistent runner, all you need to do, is run. Go, right now. Go do it.
The only difference between you and people who are where you want to be, is action.
You don’t need to do something for 21 days for it to become a part of you. You need to not give up on it and not give up on internalizing it.
I’ve failed many times. So many times, I’m tempted to call it a habit. But the thing that has brought me success in the end, is not stopping. And when you fail, don’t think of it as starting over. Think of what you’re trying to achieve as a road you’re walking down not a mountain you’re climbing. When you trip on the road, you can get back up, brush yourself off and keep going. When you fall off a mountain that’s much harder to do.
When you’re thinking of what you want to become or achieve this year, think about what you want the road behind you to look like.