Twenty-one Days

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?

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8 comments on “Twenty-one Days

  1. lexiconlover says:

    Took me 21 days to quit smoking cigarettes to really stop craving them.

    I’ve got three days of NC today. I try not to look at the long days ahead. Just the hour in front of me 🙂 Thank you for all your help my dear friend ~ xo

  2. Steve says:

    Great write up and congratulations on your sobriety (and the other changes you’ve made)!

    I probably searched all of the same sites that you did when trying to find the actual research behind the 21 day pitch – and this was the only actual ‘science’ that I’ve found:

    “In one of the only scientific studies of its kind, it was concluded that it actually takes 18+ days to form/change a habit (eprints.ucl.ac.uk/16751). They found that results varied dramatically based on many, many factors (with some subjects taking considerably longer than 18 days to see results).”

    At http://www.loopchange.com, people try to change habits and document their journey along the way. It’s kind of interesting to browse through if you’re interested as you see many people who disappear after a single day, and others who’ve stuck with something for 150+ days. I think all it really proves is that changing habits is HARD.

  3. Just googled to see if that 21 day theory is true and stumbled upon your blog. Did it ever work for you?

    • Imperfect says:

      Hi Lauren. Thanks for finding my blog. I tried to do a set of exercises every morning when I woke up. My goal was to get to a point where I did them like clockwork as part of my morning routine. I did them religiously for about two weeks, but by the third week I was doing them haphazardly. The habit didn’t stick, but I didn’t go the full 21 days.

      Some days I wake up and do the morning exercises, but not often. My exercise routine varies from week to week. Some weeks I get into a groove and go to the gym every day, other weeks I don’t work out at all. Probably on average, I work out twice a week, which is better than nothing. But it’s not the regular routine I would like to have.

  4. Deborah says:

    I was also searching on Google for the 21 day habit theory to write a blog post and found your blog. I haven’t yet checked out the website that Steve mentioned to see if it’s still live.

    I found that the 21 day habit theory didn’t work for me.

    I once exercised every morning for 6 months from November to May then as soon as it started to get darker and colder in the mornings my body clock just switched over somehow and I completely stopped exercising. When spring started again (I’m in Australia) I just couldn’t get back into the habit. It obviously takes more than just performing an action.

    • Imperfect says:

      Hey Doborah. Thanks for commenting and for you insight. I’ve yet to muster up enough sticktoitiveness to complete a 21 day experiment for exercise.

      Based on my experiences trying to change a habit, I think this theory works well if you are trying to break a bad habit (like smoking, drinking caffeine, etc.), but not if you are trying to add a new habit.

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