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The Science of Habit Formation: Does it really happen

habit formation

Debunking the 21-Day Habit Myth
Why Lasting Change Takes Time

Learned ever about habit formation; many of us have dreamt of waking up one day, a completely transformed person. We envision ourselves effortlessly adopting healthy habits, mastering new skills, and reaching peak productivity. Often, this dream hinges on the magic number: 21 days. But is there any truth to the idea that habits can be formed – or broken – in just three weeks?

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A recent study conducted by psychologist Philippa Lally aimed to shed light on this pervasive belief. The study followed 96 participants over 12 weeks, each focusing on a specific new habit like drinking water with lunch or going for a short run before dinner. After analyzing the data, researchers found that on average, it took participants a whopping 66 days – well over two months – for the new behavior to become automatic.

So, where did the 21-day myth originate? It can be traced back to the 1950s and plastic surgeon Dr. Maxwell Maltz. He observed that his patients typically took around 21 days to adjust to their new appearance after undergoing facial surgery. However, this observation doesn’t translate directly to habit formation.

Learn Change the Way You Feel to Change the Way You Do Things.

The allure of the 21-day myth lies in its simplicity. It offers a quick and easy solution to complex behavioral change. However, the reality is that habit formation is a highly individualized process. The difficulty of the habit itself, the consistency of repetition, and individual circumstances all play a significant role in how long it takes. The Lally study found a wide range, with some participants forming habits in as little as 18 days and others taking as long as 254 days.

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While the time frame may vary, the key takeaway is clear: lasting change takes time and commitment. Here are some practical tips to keep in mind:

habit formation

  • Start small: Don’t overwhelm yourself with drastic changes. Begin with a manageable new habit and gradually increase the difficulty as it becomes ingrained.
  • Focus on consistency: Repetition is key. Aim to perform your desired behavior every day, even if it’s just for a short duration.
  • Create a supportive environment: Surround yourself with people who encourage your goals. Utilize reminders and external cues to trigger your new habit.
  • Embrace the process: Setbacks are inevitable. Don’t get discouraged by occasional lapses. View them as learning opportunities and recommit to your goals.

Remember, transforming into the best version of yourself is a marathon, not a sprint. Be patient, celebrate small victories, and enjoy the journey of self-improvement.


  • University College London – Habits and Habit Formation: (This website provides a research overview from University College London on habit formation.)
  • Philippa Lally’s Research Profile at University College London (UCL): While it doesn’t provide contact information, it might offer some clues about her current research focus.
  • A 2010 Study by Philippa Lally on Habit Formation: This is the specific study mentioned in the previous conversation about the 21-day habit myth. You can access the abstract and potentially find further details about her research.
  • The Behavioural Coach – The Psychology of Habit Formation: (This website by a behavioral coach dives into the psychology behind forming habits.)
  • James Clear – How Long Does it Actually Take to Form a New Habit? (Backed by Science): (This website by James Clear, author of “Atomic Habits,” explores the science behind habit formation timeframes.)
  • Books:

    • Atomic Habits by James Clear: This book delves into the science of habit formation and provides practical strategies for building good habits and breaking bad ones.
    • The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg: This book explores the science of habits in individuals and organizations, providing insights into how habits work and how to change them.
    • Mini Habits by Stephen Guise: This book focuses on the power of starting small and building habits incrementally, making them easier to stick with in the long run.

Written by Dr. Evelyn Karen

Dr. Evelyn Karen is a highly regarded Internal Medicine Physician with over 20 years of experience in Manila. Dr. Karen is passionate about patient well-being and champions innovative practices, including integrative medicine, telemedicine, and community outreach.

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