19 Jul

How Long Does it Actually Take to Form a New Habit? (Backed by Science)


Pensive woman sitting at desk, wondering how long it takes to build a habit

How Long Does it Actually Take to Form a New Habit? (Backed by Science)

When Dr. Maltz would perform an operation — like a nose job, for example — he found that it would take the patient about 21 days to get used to seeing their new face. Similarly, when a patient had an arm or a leg amputated, Maxwell Maltz noticed that the patient would sense a phantom limb for about 21 days before adjusting to the new situation.

These experiences prompted Maltz to think about his own adjustment period to changes and new behaviors, and he noticed that it also took himself about 21 days to form a new habit. Maltz wrote about these experiences and said, “These, and many other commonly observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.”

In 1960, Maltz published that quote and his other thoughts on behavior change in a book called Psycho-Cybernetics (audiobook). The book went on to become an blockbuster hit, selling more than 30 million copies.

You see, in the decades that followed, Maltz’s work influenced nearly every major “self-help” professional from Zig Ziglar to Brian Tracy to Tony Robbins. And as more people recited Maltz’s story — like a very long game of “Telephone” — people began to forget that he said “a minimum of about 21 days” and shortened it to, “It takes 21 days to form a new habit.”

And that’s how society started spreading the common myth that it takes 21 days to form a new habit (or 30 days or some other magic number). It’s remarkable how often these timelines are quoted as statistical facts. Dangerous lesson: If enough people say something enough times, then everyone else starts to believe it.

It makes sense why the “21 Days” Myth would spread. It’s easy to understand. The time frame is short enough to be inspiring, but long enough to be believable. And who wouldn’t like the idea of changing your life in just three weeks?

But the problem is that Maxwell Maltz was simply observing what was going on around him and wasn’t making a statement of fact. Furthermore, he made sure to say that this was the minimum amount of time needed to adapt to a new change.

So what’s the real answer? How long does it take to form a habit? How long does it take a break a bad habit? Is there any science to back this up? And what does all of this mean for you and me?

How Long Does It Take to Build a Habit?

However, it’s worth noting that the study showed a wide range of timelines for any change to become a habit. Some people were able to develop a new habit within only 18 days, while others took up to 254 days.

Other experts believe that it’s less about the time frame and how many days it takes to form a habit than the intention when it comes to building a habit. “When there is a strong desire to accomplish something, it becomes about the mindset to put it all into motion and create a long-lasting ‘habit.’ Whatever the habit is, good or bad, it comes down to whether or not someone has the real desire to accomplish it or let it go,” says Jennifer Kelman, LCSW, a JustAnswer mental health expert. It’s more about the repetition of practicing that new behavior and a determined mental outlook than a specific timeline—if you have the will to follow through, you can form that habit. That said, don’t lose faith if you don’t see the results you’d hoped for within a couple of weeks. I recommend that you consciously stick to your intended change and apply that mental determination for at least three to four months. By doing so, things should fall into place to create a new habit that lasts.

How to Break a Bad Habit

One of the most challenging aspects of breaking a bad habit is staying motivated and committed over the long term. This often involves taking concrete steps to build new routines and behaviors and setting goals that are specific, measurable, and achievable.

Establish Your Intentions

Just as with building a habit, it is important to be specific. Instead of saying you want to drop a bad habit, identify exactly what it is you want to change. If your habit is to put certain tasks off until the last minute, set a goal that you will work on them for a set amount of time each day.

Create Positive Habits

Once you’ve identified your goal, it can be helpful to build positive habits in other areas of your life as well. Factors such as emotion, attention, and motivation all influence willpower and play a role in how easily and consistently people stick with behavior over the long term.

Give It Time

It’s important to remind yourself that change won’t happen overnight. Breaking a bad habit takes time and there are bound to be obstacles and setbacks along the way. Being persistent and sticking with it despite the difficulties you face is what will ultimately lead to success.


Bad habits can be difficult to break, but it’s possible to do so with some planning and effort. Start by setting a clear goal or intention, then build positive habits in other areas of your life to help support your efforts. Be patient and persistent, and remember that there may be setbacks along the way. With time and commitment, you can break your bad habit and open up new possibilities for yourself.