It takes three weeks to start a new habit!
…he said to me last week, but I have heard it many times before. Truth be told, I have always felt a bit of a failure in this regard because no matter how I tried I could not say that I had truly been successful in changing a habit in the allotted time. What is wrong with me? Today I decided to look into it and find out!
As a plastic surgeon in the 1950s, Maxwell Maltz began noticing a strange pattern among his patients. Whether a nose job, amputation, or chin tuck, it took an average of 21 days for the patient to accept the change from his or her procedure. In 1960, Maltz published a book on behavioral change called Psycho-Cybernetics in which he shared his observations. This book would go on to become a bestseller, selling over 30 million copies.
Psycho-Cybernetics was adopted as a “staple of learning” in various fields of behavioral science for the next 30 years and, as it happens, certain assertions in the book made their way to the public arena. Today, over 70 years later, many counseling professionals have fallen prey, and repeat the same misinformed assumption that so many people tell each other: It takes three weeks (21 days) to start a new habit.
(As an aside, this is a great example of a larger problem in our culture today: If enough people say something enough times, then everyone else starts to believe it.)
In reality Maxwell Maltz never claimed that his observation of 21 days was a scientific truth, in fact he wrote, “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 gell.”
So, 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? In 2009 Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher at University College London, published a controlled study of 96 people over a 12-week period in the European Journal of Social Psychology. Their conclusion was that it takes an average of 66 days to form or break a habit. However, there were examples, based on environmental conditions, of some who took as long as 254 days!
In other words, if you want to set your expectations appropriately, it will probably take you anywhere from two months to eight months to build a new behavior into your life — not 21 days. So, I now know I am not such a failure after all!
I’d like to apply this finding to our best intentions as a congregation of deepening our relationship with God, namely in our “habit” of devotional study. Finding time to pray and read Scripture is vitally important for each of us. The Church provides opportunities for regular Bible Study on Thursday nights, but if we take that 254-day number, that could mean it would be over four years, with a few misses, to acquire the habit. In reality, these things are best done every day. Regular Bible Study and prayer are essential for our spiritual health. Start small: make a 10-minute event and work your way up. If you miss a day, that’s ok; statistically, there is no harm done if you get back to it.
If you have tried before and failed, don’t beat yourself up. You really didn’t fail—that was just the primer!
“Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” – Jeremiah 29: 12-13
…again and again…
Peace in Christ,
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Father Bill Burk†