Has anyone ever told you that it takes 21 days to break a bad habit? Whether it’s in relation to your drinking, your cigarette smoking, or even your nail-biting, this tidbit gets tossed around frequently in conversation.
When I was in grad school, I always smoked a cigarette during class breaks while my older, non-smoking classmates casually mentioned the health risks and their own decisions to quit smoking. To shut them up, I’d just say, “Oh yeah, I’m trying to quit.” One classmate offered, You know, it only takes 21 days to break the habit.”
In the thick of my drug abuse, I’d always tell my former boyfriend and using buddy that we needed to slow down, needed to stop, that this was the last time. He would try to be hopeful, saying repeatedly, “Just 21 days and we can change.”
While this is a nice, comfy number to toss around—hate to disappoint you—it’s not so true and can be extremely misleading.
Where the 21-Day Myth Comes From
In the 1950s, a plastic surgeon named Dr. Maxwell Maltz observed his patients after an operation like a nose job, as well as patients who had a limb amputated. In each case respectively, it took about 21 days for a patient to get used to seeing their new face, and amputees would sense a phantom limb for about 21 days before adjusting.
Then, Dr. Maltz started to pay attention to his own behavior changes and the length of his adjustment period. Based on his observations, he wrote:
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.”
Maltz published his findings in a book called Psycho-Cybernetics, which became a huge hit and influenced just about every person in the field of “self-help.” For breaking bad habits, new diet fads, adopting new thought patterns, these self-help folks professed just 21 days were needed to change things. Thus, the myth of “21 days to form a new habit” was born.
The Reality of Breaking a Habit
All of these self-help folks weren’t so helpful, citing Maltz’s mere observations as true facts. More than that, 21 days became the hard-and-fast length of time for a healthier habit forming, but Maltz had actually said a minimum of about 21 days.
In 2009, psychology researchers from University College London conducted a study to figure out how long it really takes to break a habit. The team examined 96 people and their habits for 12 weeks. Each participant in the study had to choose a new behavior to put into practice. Every day over the course of the 12 weeks, each person in the study reported on whether or not they performed their new behavior and how automatic it felt.
Some of the participants chose simple behaviors they wanted to integrate into their daily life, like “drinking a bottle of water with lunch.” Others were more involved, like “running for 15 minutes before dinner.” After 12 weeks, the research team analyzed the participants’ reports to arrive at a conclusion.
The average time it takes for a new behavior to become automatic is actually about 66 days—more than 3 times as long as the habit-breaking myth might lead you to believe! Keep in mind, 66 days is also an average of the data. Depending on the behavior, the individual, and their circumstances, it took participants anywhere from 18 days to 254 days to form a new habit.
Well, That Sucks
When I read about the results of this study, I was pretty bummed. I like instant gratification and 21 days sounded pretty do-able for me. Maybe you’re one of the lucky, quick learners who will take less than 3 weeks to adopt a new habit. More likely, I’d be one of the outliers in the study, needing 9 months and counting to get out of a bad habit and into a healthier one.
Even when I was in rehab, so panicked and afraid, I would reassure myself with the habit-breaking myth: Just stay clean for 3 weeks and we’ve got this. After that point, I thought sobriety and recovery would all be downhill—easy-peasy lemon-squeezy. If you’ve been in recovery a bit longer than 21 days, you already know just how wrong this kind of thinking is.
I often thought of my drug abuse as a collection of “bad habits” that, eventually, I would grow out of and leave behind. If only I could eat healthy enough or commit to exercising everyday, if only I could find the right hobby, if only I could find a job that I love—any of these things could nicely and neatly replace drugs in my life and cure me for good, so I thought.
The Silver Lining
Recovery, whether it be for substance abuse or for a mental health condition, isn’t a neat and tidy matter. We don’t just replace our bad habits with healthier ones and move on with our lives. It is a lifetime journey of recovering.
That being said, there are plenty of bad habits that we could afford to break, many we may have adopted during our substance abuse. For me, some of these habits are pretty obviously unhealthy, like smoking cigarettes, not feeding myself enough, and not getting enough sleep. Other bad habits of mine are tricky, like exaggerating the truth when I tell a story or pretending that everything is “fine” when really I’m losing it.
We can overcome these bad habits from our old days, and doing so can help maintain our sobriety. But, then again, 66 days seems like a long time—over 2 months! When I was getting high, 2 months seemed like an eternity. I couldn’t commit to something for a week let alone several months—except for drugs.
The idea of just 21 days to change seems attractive, but the knowledge that our period of adjustment is actually a bit longer can be a relief. If you quit smoking a few weeks ago but you’re still craving, hang in there. Give yourself time. If you’ve been exercising this month but it still feels like torture or you’re not getting the results you wanted, stick it our a little longer. Knowing that most new habits take over 2 months to form can help you to take it easy on yourself and be patient with your process.
Another positive note: the study found that making a mistake or forgetting to incorporate your new behavior once or twice does not have a significant impact on your long-term change. So if you’re trying to stop drinking soda but you cave and have a soda today, it’ll be okay—keep trying tomorrow. If you miss a workout, you’re not doomed and it doesn’t mean you have to give up.
By no means does this data justify you going out and having a drink or taking a hit. The point is: mistakes might happen, and they will happen in recovery, too. If you do go have a drink or take a hit, or if you have already relapsed, you can still get back on track and find long-term sobriety. Don’t let a relapse steer you away from your ultimate goal, because you can rise up and overcome.
Above all, change, transformation, recovery—these all take time and dedication. Drugs and alcohol may have accustomed us to instant gratification, but that’s not how true change works. The journey is a process, made of a series of incremental improvements, and we can’t do it all at once.
The Beauty’s in the Struggle
The first hit brought me an instant relief, but it was always short-lived and it was never enough—no matter how much of a drug I had. Instant gratification always falls short. Even when you win money on a scratch-off ticket, despite the joy of the surprise, the sense of satisfaction is different, more shallow, than that of a paycheck earned through hard, honest work.
When I earn my paycheck by doing work that I take pride in, when I finish a piece of writing that I’ve worked on for weeks, when I step back and compare my self-esteem now to that of a year ago—the satisfaction I feel in these accomplishments is deeper than a drug euphoria. My gratification is rooted in so many moments of effort, so many small triumphs, interwoven into this huge patchwork of stitches that I have worked to make.
Your process might be long and hard. You may not be exactly where you’d like to be right now, but you’re getting there. Just keep going.