Source of the 21 days to make a habit myth

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It may take much longer than 21 days to make a new habit (or break an old one).  Here is the source of the 21 days to make a habit myth, and some ways to shorten the real time it takes to make a new habit

21 days to make a habit - the myth explained

The source of the myth can be attributed to Maxwell Maltz in his book The New Psycho Cybernetics which was published in 1960.  Maxwell Maltz, M.D., F.I.C.S., was one of the most important and renowned authors in the field of psychology. He was recognised as a brilliant plastic surgeon, in addition to being an internationally renowned professor and lecturer.  So here was a highly respectable figure, who wrote a book which sold millions of copies, and he provided great advice to many.  This is a classic case of the research being misunderstood, and morphing into something very different to what the author originally intended.

Some of the original thoughts which led to this myth, and some of the truths that still apply.

In the preface to the book, Dr Maltz wrote:

‘It usually requires a minimum of about 21 days to effect any perceptible change in a mental image. Following plastic surgery it takes about 21 days for the average patient to get used to his new face. When an arm or leg is amputated the “phantom limb” persists for about 21 days. People must live in a new house for about three weeks before it begins to “seem like home”. These, and many other commonly observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.’ (pp xiii-xiv)

From those thoughts, stemmed the myth.  But there is a lot of merit in many of his ideas.  Let's explore some of them further.

Forgiveness and self reflection:

"Mental Training Exercises

By far, the most challenging and rewarding exercises of all suggested in this book are these involving forgiveness. Choose one or two persons for whom you’ve long carried resentment over past slights and find a way in your heart to truly, completely forgive them, no strings attached, and ultimately do so via your actions toward them. Also, identify some past error or situation you have been carrying a grudge against yourself for, and forgive yourself, and finally, once and for all, banish this from your thoughts. This may very well require considerable work in your imagination factory. Invest 30 minutes a day for 21 consecutive days on quiet reflection, working on this with yourself, in solitude."


See what Carl de Wet has to say about the Habit of Gratitude.   It is hard to be grateful when you hold grudges.

Easy and effortless (the modern principle of "Flow"

When you watch a master at work, be it a sportsman or musician, everything seems effortless.  Dr. Maltz identified this and observed:

“Skill in any performance whether it be in sports in playing the piano in conversation or in selling merchandise consists not in painfully and consciously thinking out each action as it is performed but in relaxing and letting the job do itself through you. Creative performance is spontaneous and ‘natural’ as opposed to self-conscious and studied.”

We see this so strongly when you develop habits correctly.  It shouldn't be painless, but rather should be easy to do, so that you can relax, enjoy the ride and let the habit principles work for you.

Goal setting and desire

If we don't have goals, we cannot have direction.  If we have direction, we can create habits that are aligned to our meeting those goals:

“And above all, there must be a burning desire to solve the problem. But, having defined the problem, having seen in the imagination the desired end result, having secured all the information and facts, then additional struggling, fretting and worrying over it does not help, but seems to hinder the solution.”

Create Life habits that support your goals

Does 21 days to make a habit still apply?  Maybe, but it's probably not enough to make a habit that really lasts.  After all, if every habit was permanent, we wouldn't be making and breaking habits all the time.  Here are some thoughts that you can use today to make great positive habits in the shortest possible time, and break those negative, bad habits that hold you back.

  • Adopt the Life Habit Principles of Sustainable Habits.
  • Sign up for one of our Life Habit programmes to identify the habits that apply to your age group and the area of life that needs the most work.
  • Work on more than one habit at a time.  Our Life Habit programmes are designed so that each habit works in conjunction with others, so that you can radically improve your life.  We firmly believe that Life is a Habit, and that once you realise this, you can make radical changes that last.
  • Include meditation and reflection in your daily habits.  Spend time thinking about the things that matter.
  • Forgive yourself and others.  No-one is perfect, and self-criticism is one of the most destructive things you can do.   Drop those grudges and forgive.
  • Join our community and meet other people who are on the same journey as you.
  • Find an accountability partner who will be gently checking on your progress and assisting when you falter.

In retrospect, does the 21 day myth still apply?  Probably not, but does it matter?  Start today to apply our priinciples and you can become the person you've always wanted to be.

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