The Happiness Project

A chronicle of my attempts to test-drive every tip, principle and scientific study that promotes happiness

Stop Expecting to Change Your Habit in 21 Days.

How long does it really take to change a habit?

Habits

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in -- no need to catch up, just jump in right now.

In my research on happiness, I keep running into the assertion that it takes twenty-one days to develop a new habit -- but I’ve always had my doubts about the validity that number.

First, when it comes to developing a bad habit, two repetitions is probably enough. Order a doughnut with your coffee on Monday morning and Tuesday morning, and you’ll probably find it very hard to resist ordering a doughnut on Wednesday.

Second, at least for me, twenty-one days isn't nearly long enough to form a good habit. For my happiness project, I tried for many weeks to get in the habit of keeping a food journal, and I failed and gave up, and then tried again, and I never could get in the habit. Flossing is a challenge – though all the suggestions from these commenters has improved my flossing rate, I must say. Even writing in my one-sentence journal, which I enjoy doing, isn't really quite habitual yet.

Because I’ve always questioned that often-repeated statistic, I was very interested to read Oliver Burkeman’s article, How long does it really take to change a habit?

According to a recent study, a daily action like eating fruit at lunch or running for fifteen minutes took an average of sixty-six days to become as much of a habit as it would ever become.

However, there was a lot of variation, both among people and among habits – some people are more habit-resistant than others, and some habits are harder to pick up than others.

I found this study reassuring. My difficulty in picking up certain habits wasn't unusual. Fact is, habits are hard to alter, and that’s why developing a good habit is really worth the struggle; once you’re used to making your bed each morning, or going for an evening walk, or flossing, you don’t have to exert much self-control to keep it up.

The study also showed that if you miss a day here or there when you’re trying to develop a habit, it doesn’t derail the process, so don’t get discouraged if you can’t keep a perfect track record. But the first days seem to make the biggest difference, so it’s worth trying to be particularly diligent at the beginning of the attempted-habit-acquisition process.

What do you think? What has been your experience in developing habits? How long has it taken, and what tricks have you found to help yourself acquire -- or kick -- a habit?

* I've always been fascinated by bees and ants (also slightly terrified of ants, having read The Once and Future King at an impressionable age), and was amazed by this video of fire ants forming a raft to float down a river.

* Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (Sorry about writing it in that roundabout way; I’m trying to thwart spammers.) Just write “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

Gretchen Rubin is the author of The Happiness Project, a book and a blog about her adventures learning to be happier.

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