University of London 66 Days

University of London LogoUniversity of London 66 Days

Have you ever made a New Year’s resolution? If so, you may have been assured – usually by a well-meaning supporter of your attempted transformation – that you only have to stick with your resolution for 21 days for it to become an ingrained habit. The magic number 21 creeps up in many articles about forming a new habit or making a change, but little is known about the origins of the ’21 days’ claim.

Psychologists from our department have devoted extensive time and effort to find out what it takes to form ‘habits’ (which psychologists define as learned actions that are triggered automatically when we encounter the situation in which we’ve repeatedly done those actions).

We know that habits are formed through a process called ‘context-dependent repetition’.  For example, imagine that, each time you get home each evening, you eat a snack. When you first eat the snack upon getting home, a mental link is formed between the context (getting home) and your response to that context (eating a snack). Each time you subsequently snack in response to getting home, this link strengthens, to the point that getting home comes to prompt you to eat a snack automatically, without giving it much prior thought; a habit has formed.

University of London 66 Days

Habits are mentally efficient: the automation of frequent behaviours allows us to conserve the mental resources that we would otherwise use to monitor and control these behaviours, and deploy them on more difficult or novel tasks. Habits are likely to persist over time; because they are automatic and so do not rely on conscious thought, memory or willpower.  This is why there is growing interest, both within and outside of psychology, in the role of ‘habits’ in sustaining our good behaviours.

So where does the magic ’21 days’ figure come from?

We think we have tracked down the source. In the preface to his 1960 book ‘Psycho-cybernetics’, Dr Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon turned psychologist wrote:

It usually requires a minimum of about 21 days to effect any perceptible change in a mental image. Following plastic surgery it takes about 21 days for the average patient to get used to his new face. When an arm or leg is amputated the “phantom limb” persists for about 21 days. People must live in a new house for about three weeks before it begins to “seem like home”. 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.’ (pp xiii-xiv)