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Changing our Stripes

Who doesn’t want to lose bad habits and/or create good habits?


But how long does it take?


In 1960 a plastic Surgeon named Maxwell Maltz observed, as part of his practice, that it took his patients approximately 21 days to get used to a new face or the loss of a limb etc. He subsequently published a book declaring that it takes us humans around 21 days to adjust to a life change. This 21-day number became the oft-quoted time that it takes to form a new habit.


“Poppycock” cry the Psychology experts. A study in the European Journal of Social Psychology (2009) done by Phillippa Lally and colleagues at the University College in London addressed the issue.


Using 96 people they discovered that a new habit (habit being defined as almost automatic behavior) took anywhere between 18 and 254 days (with 66 being the average). There was also a curved relationship to this result – i.e. most of the “habit” behavior had been formed by the 66-day mark with little additional benefit beyond that.


I understand why Social scientists throw out Maxwell’s observation given the lack of rigor but I wonder why they didn’t reflect on the differences.


Maxwell was talking about adaptation. You don’t have a choice. Get over it and get moving. The second experiment focused on building habits like eating fruit once a day etc. At least to me this seems less daunting.


What if, when we approach the desire to build a new habit, we saw it as a “must have” and not just a “nice to have”?


Where in the experiment did they address the intensity of the desire for change?  How much “heart” you put into it?


My guess is that, like a lot of things in life, how badly you want it makes a huge difference.

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