I had a therapist tell me once, years ago, that it takes 21 days to form or break a habit. For some reason, this statement popped up in my brain the other day. Breaking bad habits and forming new ones is a big part of my recovery, so I decided to look into it.
I googled this factoid and found a myriad of self-help type websites that said “experts agree” or “research has shown” that it takes 21 days to make/break/change a habit without citing the actual experts or research. I even found an iphone app. It’s $0.99 though, so eff that (yes, I really am that cheap).
With a little more digging, I found that the 21 Day Habit Theory was first introduced by Dr. Maxwell Maltz. He was a plastic surgeon who worked with amputees and found that it takes an average of 21 days for the phantom sensation of the lost limb to cease. Later, he applied this finding to work with his plastic surgery patients. He found that many of them maintained their negative self-image even after surgery had given them the results they sought. He found that before surgery, he could use this same 21 day period to help patients improve their self-esteem, through visualization, to the point where they no longer wanted surgery. It doesn’t seem like this discovery would be in his best interest, except he published a bestselling self-help book in 1960. His theory was that it takes the human mind about 21 days to adjust to a major life change.
In the five plus months of my sobriety I’ve broken many bad habits. Here’s a list of a few of them. I’ve replaced them with some good habits, writing this blog, for example. But I’ve also replaced them with some bad habits. Sure, I don’t come home from work and waste the rest of my evening online on dating and sex sites, but I do come home and waste the rest of the evening in bed watching tv. I’m not going on dates with three or four men a weekend, but I’m also hardly leaving my house on the weekends.
I know a lot of it has to do with the season. It was easy for me to work out and take yoga classes during the summer, but now it’s cold, dark when I wake up, and dark by the time I’m home from work. I don’t want to do shit but turn on the heat, eat fancy cheeses and chocolate, drink wine and curl up in bed. But this isn’t taking care of myself. So I’m going to apply this 21 day habit theory and do some form of physical exercise for 21 days. Hopefully, after 21 days, it will become a habit that I automatically do without having to force myself or work up special motivation. Not only will regular exercise benefit me physically and mentally, it will also get me out of the house. I’ll let you know the results of this experiment in about three weeks.
Are there any habits any of you want to change? Have you ever successfully used the 21 day model to change a habit?