Open Thinkering


Tag: James Clear

New habits die easily

If “old habits die hard” then it would appear uncontroversial to state the obvious, that new habits die easily.

There’s different views on how long it takes to form a new habit, but, for some reason, 21 days seems to be a popular opinion. The trouble is, that it’s based on theory 1950s plastic surgeon who noticed that it took at least 21 days for a patient to get used to the result of their new post-surgery look.

It makes sense why the “21 Days” Myth would spread. It’s easy to understand. The time frame is short enough to be inspiring, but long enough to be believable. And who wouldn’t like the idea of changing your life in just three weeks?

James Clear, How Long Does it Actually Take to Form a New Habit? (Backed by Science)

Proper scientific research, carried out by Phillippa Lally and her team at UCL has shown that it can take a good deal longer than 21 days to form a new habit:

In my own life, I’ve found habit formation to be very easy for some things and very difficult for others. If we step back a bit and think about things, that’s exactly what we would expect. It’s easier to engrain a habit based on something positive that I’m doing and that I enjoy (e.g. going for a run) versus something negative that I feel I’m giving up (e.g. eating less ice-cream).

On average, it takes more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact. And how long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances. In Lally’s study, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit. 

In other words, if you want to set your expectations appropriately, the truth is that it will probably take you anywhere from two months to eight months to build a new behavior into your life — not 21 days.

James Clear, How Long Does it Actually Take to Form a New Habit? (Backed by Science)

The other thing to point out here is the specificity of the habit being mentioned. For example, I use Loop Habit Tracker to keep track of a bunch of things from doing press-ups and sit-ups every morning through to not eating sugar on weekdays. It’s easy for me to give myself the weekend off doing my press-ups, or not counting certain types of sugar (e.g. fructose).

The thing is not to give up and to get yourself back on track. For example, this morning, I went on the exercise bike, did my press-ups and sit-ups properly and used a 24kg kettlebell to do some weights. I’m also about to go for a long walk so I get my 10,000 steps in for the day (although that’s also a problematic number).

Motivation around my physical health is high today, mainly because I took it easy at the end of last week as I felt a cold coming on. Tomorrow, who knows? The trick is to keep on the upward trajectory.

Interestingly, the researchers also found that “missing one opportunity to perform the behavior did not materially affect the habit formation process.” In other words, it doesn’t matter if you mess up every now and then. Building better habits is not an all-or-nothing process.

James Clear, How Long Does it Actually Take to Form a New Habit? (Backed by Science)

This post is Day 46 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at