It’s soapbox time.
One thing that I have found really grinds my gears in the world of health related articles, including all the New Year’s Resolutions articles masquerading as help, is the “it takes 21 days to form a habit”. That’s right, 21 days and I will be an early morning riser, super productive, healthy eating, good wife/sister/daughter/friend, yoga guru, gym bunny.
This might seem a really small and trivial thing to get wound up about, but let me explain. I have three reasons for this being a soapbox rant target. I call bullpoop on 21 days.
Where is the science?! I studied psychology at uni, and while that makes me so far from an actual psychologist, it did give me the desire to see things back up by, y’know, science. Ask most people how long it will take to form a habit, and the stock answer is probably going to be 21 days. Where has this mythical 21 days come from? Interestingly, from what I have read, it actually started off being an observation of a surgeon called Maxwell Maltz in the 1960s who said that he noticed his patients adjusted to a physical change from 21 days onwards (it is the “onwards” bit that is often missed off). In 2010, a health psychologist called Philippa Lally published a study which suggests that it is more likely to take 66 days to start forming a habit. A bit of a difference in timescales there! Importantly, she also said that it depends on the type of person and the habit they’re trying to form. It’s going to be much easier to form a quick and pleasurable habit (eat a piece of cake a day) versus remembering to wash the car on a weekly basis.
Maybe this is just me, but habits do require some maintenance. Suggesting that your habit will be formed after 21 days and will then be forever ingrained is just daft. Okay, brushing your teeth may not require as much thought, but trying to adjust your eating habits, or exercising habits, speaking from experience, can be hard work. Not physically hard, but mentally tough. I find myself having to be in a constant state of vigilance, lest I find myself falling into my own personal danger zone of apathy because I have decided I have failed at whatever I am working on.
I think it can be damaging to bandy around the idea that in three weeks, you’re cured! Your bad habit has been broken and replaced by a good habit. Congratulations! You’ve succeeded in three whole weeks, and no more do you need to think about it! Again, if it’s a nice habit (like eating cake every day – that would be lovely right now), it’s not going to take much effort to get into that kind of routine. This is where it gets personal for me. Telling me that it will take me 21 days of healthy eating to reform my habits psychologically doesn’t do me any favours. Have I failed to form a habit successfully if it takes longer than 21 days? Yes, according to the unreasonable and illogical part of my head, I have. Forty-one days later into a different way of eating and I can’t understand why this doesn’t feel any easier. That’s lie. I can understand it. I said before that it’s a constant state of awareness, and questions, and reasoning, and logic. I went to a workshop for work this week, and there were pastries. I cannot tell you how amazing they smelled. Little pastry slices of sweet and buttery heaven. Before the workshop started, my internal dialogue was “Do I feel hungry?”… Yes. “Okay, are you thirsty?”… Yes. “Have you tried having a drink first?”… No, okay, glass at the ready. “Is there an alternative?”… Yes, there’s fruit. “You’ve done really well, will the pastry set off a binge type response?”… Probably. “Is it a good idea to have a pastry?”… No. All of this over a pastry. And right now, I don’t see that changing any time soon.
So, at the end of all that? I think it really depends on who you are and what you’re trying to do, and of course, how much it really means to you and your motivation and engagement in following it all through. Just please, no more “21 days to make a habit” rubbish.