Everyone’s heard of this rule: it takes just twenty-one days to force yourself to build a good, new habit, drop a bad one, or to accidentally pick one up.
It’s easy to understand why this sticks in people’s heads: three weeks is long enough to make the “sacrifice” believable for a good habit, but short enough for people to see it as doable. Achievable.
My swim coach even told me that if we just got in the habit of “trying our best” for three weeks, it would become second nature to try our best, whatever that meant.
There’s a lot that’s ambiguous about this, though. How complex can the habit be? It is 21 days, no matter what kind of habit it is? What happens if you’re twenty days in, and you miss the last one, do you go back to square one? Does it take three weeks to drop bad habits, too? Is it the same for everyone?
If you start to think of concrete examples, this immediately falls apart. For instance, I’ve been waking up around 7 am for the majority of my adult life. For longer stretches than 21 days, too. Nevertheless, I’ve always struggled to do it, and until recently, given any day where I don’t have to get up early, I’ll sleep in later.
Where did the 21-day myth originate?
Back in the 50s, one plastic surgeon noticed that it took people around 21 days to get used to their “new face.” Long story short, he published a highly successful pop culture book on it, which sold over 30 million copies.
“It requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.” — Maxwell Maltz, plastic surgeon and author of Psycho-Cybernetics.
These kinds of things happen every day. People began to take his quotes out of context. As self-help authors started to pick his research up, somewhere along the line, folks started to believe that 21 was the magic number when it came to habit building, and they started telling everyone they knew. And suddenly it was everywhere.
People believed that if they could just struggle through something for 21 days, their brains would simply switch that flick on, or off, and it’d be easy to get the great habits they wanted.
That’s the wrong way to think about habit building.
Here’s the unfortunate truth: if you want to build a habit, all you have to do get rid of the obstacles stopping you. It doesn’t take twenty-one days, it just means you have that instead of thinking of it as something you should do, or need to do, you should frame it in a way that makes you want to do it. That can be really easy, or really tough.
It tends to be tough because, as a rule, humans are lazy. I don’t mean that in a bad way, or as an indictment of our character. I just mean that we conserve energy where possible, and a lot of that means we take the path of least resistance.
This can be a bad thing — things, like eating fast food, not doing exercise, or not working on our novels, are all typically easier to do than their alternatives.
But you can make that work for you. By creating more resistance when you want to stop something, or getting rid of resistance when you want to start something, you can make it much easier to build the habits you want.
It’s true that if you do something enough times, it becomes the path of least resistance naturally, and that’s certainly one way to form a lasting habit. I believe this is why the twenty-one day myth has had such holding power. IF we keep doing something for days, weeks, months, years? It’s so worn down into our consciousness that it’s hard not to be a habit.
But in reality, there’s a foolproof and much simpler way you can start building a habit today that will last the rest of your life.
Make resistance work for you.
My goal was to start waking up earlier, or at least to enjoy waking up earlier. Despite doing it for most of my life, from high school onwards, I still struggled. I still didn’t enjoy it or find it easy.
Do you know what made me finally start waking up earlier and going to sleep earlier? I removed the obstacles that were stopping me from getting up earlier, and I made my mornings ultra-appealing.
It finally all clicked when I developed a good morning routine. I bought a nice coffee maker, I invested in some fresh bread, and I started reading fiction. Then I set my alarm.
And guess what? Suddenly, I wanted to get up earlier, start my day earlier. There was delicious coffee, a wonderful breakfast, and the latest fantasy book I’d ordered for myself, waiting for me.
I also got stricter about no blue light at bedtime. Again, this was easy because I wanted to read my books, so it was a natural progression to not watching TV, or browsing Facebook, or indulging in any of the other habits that used to keep me up.
The way I combined those two goals was that I kept the book in the bedroom. So I’d wake up, see the book, think of the coffee, and fully get up. In the evening, I’d already be tired from waking up earlier, so I’d go to bed to read my book there.
In less than a week, I’d fully adjusted to my new schedule. I’ve been that way ever since.
By working with resistance — by smoothing out the path to wake up earlier, by making it harder to stay up later — I ended up easily acquiring the habits I wanted. As long as you make the habit you want to build the easiest to default to, you’ll be able to build any habit you want.
Failure is just progress under a different name.
It’s important to remember that you might fail — or rather, you might think that not building a habit on the first go is a failure.
But in this case, not managing to get it right on the first try doesn’t mean you haven’t achieved it — it just means you have another piece of information to help.
“Missing one opportunity to perform the behavior did not materially affect the habit formation process.” — Lally et al, 2009.
For example, eating healthier dinners has always been a habit I wanted to form. I’m very prone to buying pizzas or microwaveable meals when I’m short on time or energy, and that was something I wanted to stop.
So I decided I would make a meal plan and do the shopping for the week in advance. When I got home, the recipe idea and all the ingredients were already there.
For me to go back out and buy a pizza at the point would have been more difficult, in theory. But in practice, sometimes I did not feel like doing a big weekly grocery shop.
I could have given up and decided to give in. But I didn’t. I took this “failure” to mean I just needed to try something different.
What ended up working for me was simply paying slightly more to get my groceries delivered. I had the same core set of ingredients delivered every weekend, and repeated meals. In this way, I made the path of least resistance to eat healthy meals for dinner. It wasn’t any big, sweeping decision — it was simply the easiest thing for me to do.
As long as you remember to consider failure as just another step forward, not backward, you can keep trying.
The takeaway? Habit-forming isn’t some mystical activity, with magic numbers. It’s just about knowing yourself and your own mind. If a habit is worth it to you, if it’s the one thing you desperately want to start doing, all you have to do is make it easier to do it than to not do it.
Whatever form that takes will be different depending on you and the habit. Some people find it best to post a public declaration — then the shame of not following through naturally makes fulfilling the promise easier than not. Others use physical obstacles: putting alarm clocks outside of bedrooms, locking up unhealthy snacks.
Only you can know what might work, and even then you might be wrong. When you do fail, it’s important to interpret that as it is — your brain simply pointing you in the right direction — rather than self-criticism.
It doesn’t take 21 days, an act of God, your first-born child and the blessing of your favorite productivity guru to get great habits. Ultimately, all it takes is to make it the easiest and eventually the only way to do things, to start building your life the way you want.