Changing a habit to change your LIFE

Habit Formation Pragmatics
(Like, how LONG do we have to do something before it becomes a habit?)

©Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
from the Time & Task Management Series:
Habits, Decisions & Attention-3

Out with the old, IN with the new . . .



“Everybody knows” that, according to established learning theory, it takes approximately thirty days of daily practice for a new behavior to become a habit. Right?


Google will tell you that it takes somewhere between 21 and 28 days. Various blogs and websites will cite various numbers, somewhere between three weeks (21 days) and five weeks (35 days).

Did you know that, until 2009, there had been
NO scientific evidence for anybody’s numbers.

The 21-day myth that reputedly started the process of conjecture is frequently blamed on a plastic surgeon, Dr Maxwell Maltz.

Maltz noted that amputees took, on average, 21 days to adjust to the loss of a limb.  He proposed that his 21-day observation indicated that people would probably take 21 days to adjust to most major life changes.

In 1960, Maltz published that observation, his conjecture, and his other thoughts on behavior change in the blockbuster hit Psycho-Cybernetics.

That particular book, selling over 30 Million copies, greatly influenced most of the motivational speakers in the “self-help” field. Well known authors and gurus like Brian Tracy and Tony Robbins (even Zig Ziglar) have frequently made reference to content from Psycho-Cybernetics.

The reality that Maltz actually reported that it takes “a minimum of about 21 days” got lost as more and more people repeated content from his book, whether they’d actually read the book themselves or not.

Before long the relative became repeated as an absolute:
“It takes 21 days to form a new habit.”

  • Enter the age of the Internet and the popularity of blogs and blogging, and repetition was substituted for research.
  • Codicils to the process of habit formation were tacked on, and the time-frame was lengthened by a week.
  • Evidence to the contrary was dismissed, usually by saying that if the individual didn’t repeat the exact same action for thirty days without exception, it wouldn’t work unless s/he started over again – that it had to be thirty days in a row.

I’ve been guilty of passing that myth along myself – usually adding that “it takes those of us with Alphabet Disorders longer to get those thirty days IN!”

“If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.”

~ Anatole France

Only in 2009 did anybody publish the results of a STUDY of habit formation — reinstating its relativity and disclosing an average almost three times higher than what was commonly reported.

Be sure to check out the sidebar to read how links work on this site, they’re subtle ==>


A groundbreaking scientific investigation into how people form habits turned the previous myths and scuttlebutt into old news when it published it findings online in July, 2009. According to the results of this investigation, it takes an average of 66 days to form a new habit.

The study was ultimately Journal published in October 2010 [Volume 40, Issue 6, pages 998–1009 of the European Journal of Social Psychology], by Phillippa Lally and colleagues from the Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Centre based at UCL Epidemiology and Public Health.

It’s important to note that even though the average time required was 66 days, the range of time required was actually widespread: from 18 to 254 days The difference depended on a few varying factors.

As psychologist Dr Jeremy Dean, the prolific author of the always excellent PsyBlog points out in the first article in his own series on habits, How Long to Form a Habit?

“Clearly, it’s going to depend on the type of habit you’re trying to form and how single-minded you are in pursuing your goal.”

Don’t set yourself up for failure with unrealistic expectations

New habits do not stop the old habits from existing; they just have to build for a long enough timeframe to become stronger influences on your behavior. For the sake of your continued willingness to stay on the horse, it’s important that you set your expectations appropriately.

Make sure you remain aware that, depending on the complexity of the habit you are attempting to build into your life, it’s probably going to take longer than 21-30 days.

  • In fact, it may well take you anywhere from two to eight months before a new behavior has been repeated often enough that it becomes automatic.
  • That doesn’t mean it won’t get easier to repeat the behavior the longer you keep at it, or that you won’t experience increased benefits of the process of building the habit along the way.
  • It simply means that it may take some time before your HABIT is automatic and your ongoing diligence is no longer required (meaning that you perform the action without having to consciously remember).

The good news is that Lally and associates ALSO found that “missing one opportunity to perform the behavior did not materially affect the habit formation process.”

THAT means that skipping a day now and then does not negatively affect the process of building your new habit.  You don’t have to “restart your count” as long as you get right back on the horse.

Your brain is still building links in response to your repeated attempts to set the new habit in place, long before the habit reaches the point of automaticity.  You strengthen those links every single time you activate the Habit Cycle, consciously or unconsciously.

  • You can decrease the time it takes for a process to become automatic if you are diligent about not reactivating the old pathways while you are attempting to build your new system, but only so much.
  • For the most part, changing old habits seems to be a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race process.

Just don’t give up

Science still does not know what level of consistency is necessary to create the formation of a habit, but if you are extremely inconsistent you won’t be able to build the new habit until you step up your level of regularity.

Things will always remain a struggle as long as you allow yourself
to remain in the will I or won’t I? decision-making stage.

But there’s always the possibility of change. That possibility increases with every activation of the Habit Cycle by every single new attempt to install your new habit — as new pathways are built and existing links are strengthened.

The habit CYCLE:

CUE (situation) ==> ACTION (behavior) ==> REWARD (reinforcement) ==> REPEAT!

The Brain is Habit-Building Friendly

Habits are patterns – and the human brain has evolved to be a pattern-recognition machine.

As we learned in Part 2 of this Series, Brain-based Habit Formation, our basal ganglia keeps track of those links that are built through repetition. Remember, pathways remain available for reactivation as long as the basal ganglia are intact.

That can be BOTH good news and bad.

  • It’s good news if we drop out the activities that lead to the development of a habit and decide we want to try again
  • It’s bad news when we stop paying attention to building our new habit and backslide before we know it.

In an MIT report of a 2005 study, Dana Alliance member Ann Graybiel wrote encouragingly,

“We knew that neurons can change their firing patterns when habits are learned, but it is startling to find that these patterns reverse when the habit is lost, only to recur again as soon as something kicks off the habit again.”

 To underscore what we covered in Part One of this Series, Habits, Decisions and Attention . . .

In a 2011 Associated Press article, Dr. Nora Volkow explained that most individuals assign more value to an immediate reward than a long-term goal, based on what science reports about the preferences of study participants.

Those study subjects probably represent most human beings fairly closely.  (Dr. Volkow is a Dana Alliance member and director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse)

She goes on to say that the pleasure we get from repeatedly reinforcing the immediate reward is transformed over time into a habit through the processes modulated by the neurotransmitter dopamine (which you may remember from Brain-based Habit Formation: the Dopamine Pleasure/Reward System).

The dopamine-rich part of the brain named the striatum (the major input station of the basal ganglia system), “memorizes rituals and routines that are linked to getting a particular reward,” explained Volkow. “Eventually, those environmental cues trigger the striatum to make some behaviors almost automatic.”

Think Long-term

Remember that the goal is to change your life for the long-haul, NOT to win some imaginary rapid habit formation contest.  Anyone who has ever gone on a rapid weight loss diet can tell you how long you will be likely to keep it up.  Not very!

Life change is a marathon. Resist the urge to sprint the first mile — you’ll run out of steam long before the finish line.

  • Making friends with longer time-frames will help you internalize the reality that building new habits is a process you have to embrace.
  • Accepting this reality up-front will make it easier to manage your expectations and commit to going for small, incremental improvements — rather than pressuring yourself into thinking that you have to hurry up and change your life!

Start with reasonable expectations, and do something every day toward setting them into place. (If you can’t resist the lure of the tube, ten jumping jacks and two pushups during every commercial will eventually build to that exercise program you can’t seem to “make” yourself stick to.)

Track Times, not Time

I will do fifty situps, fifty pushups and fifty pull-ups every day — even if I have to spread them out and rest between each and every one of them — will be a lot more effective in developing the exercise habit than, “I will exercise for an hour every day.”

Working for Wages

Many of us develop a skewed approach to effort when we work for wages.  Because our continued compensation is usually set with the expectation that we will arrive “on time” and stay until “quitting time” — and that efforts expended beyond those time-frames is “over-time” — we tend to forget that we are being paid to do a job, not to put in hours at the office.

We often confuse working for a particularly large amount of time with working hard, even though chances are good that we weren’t really “working” the entire time.

When you are setting up systems to achieve your goals, don’t fall into the time trap while you are attempting to set effective habits.

  • Many writers, for example, make the mistake of thinking that working for a specific time frame is an effective way to set the writing habit firmly in place.
  • Writers who actually finish their projects quantify content, not effort.
  • They commit to a certain number of pages (or words) every day, and don’t stop until they’ve done what they set out to do — even if they have to squeeze in dribs and drabs throughout the entire day.

Keep Time TINY

Think in terms of time only when you need to bribe yourself to start at all. 

Agree that you will do something for five minutes, then see how you feel about going for another five (or whatever amount of time seems j-u-s-t small enough to you that you really can’t justify NOT putting in at least that much time).

You may surprise yourself by how much you can do in the small time you allotted. You may also surprise yourself to note that once you start, it’s easy to keep going.

In terms of habit formation, linking the start of the new behavior to the cue every time is more important than whether or not you do exactly the same amount of the task you’re trying to automate every time.

Choose your Cues

arrowgoldThink specific context, not specific time.

“I make my bed as soon as I get out of it,” is a much more effective cue than “My bed is made by 7:00 AM every day.”

To create a habit your brain needs you to be consistent.  What if you over-sleep?  What if you’re sick?

  • Your brain doesn’t really relate to time anyway, but you do!
  • When you feel like you’ve overshot your time cue, you are likely to have an emotional reaction to it, alerting your amygdala that something is wrong.
  • That will encourage your brain to conclude that this is a new behavior it needs to pay special attention to, not a repetition of the behavior you are trying to link to a specific cue — and suddenly you’ve made it all more difficult for yourself.

arrowgoldLink to something you already do regularly

Even the most habit-averse among us DO have habits in place. Take a look — what are they?

Consider everything you do regularly, whether you consider it a “habit” or not.

  • You wake up and you go to sleep (eventually!)
  • If you leave your house, you probably get out of whatever you slept in and dress anew for the outside world. You probably put on shoes of some type.
  • No doubt you eat regularly (even if “regularly” means once every other day), and go to the bathroom several times a day.
  • You have to do something about washing off the effects of each prior day — even if, sometimes, your morning ritual must be truncated for lack of time and you substitute a quick PTA (“sink bath”)
  • Most of us have daily grooming rituals of some type: hair combing, sunscreen or make-up application, teeth brushing, etc.

Each of these activities could provide a context cue for new habit formation.  Go through your day to figure out your existing habits, then choose where your new habit fits best.

arrowgoldWrite it down!

Keep a record of some sort – check in with yourself daily and note each daily repetition somehow.

Once they’ve committed to the development of a new habit, calendar cross-offs, star-charts, spreadsheets, and food journals are all ways that people have used to stay on the horse.

Check out “The Seinfeld Strategy” on James Clear’s blog for a great description of how effective a motivator a calendar can be to help you set a habit in place.

arrowgoldDomino your cues

Start small and add steps gradually, linking each step of your new habit to the one before it.

If you have to bribe yourself with the “only five minutes” trick more than an occasional time or two, you’ve probably been too aggressive in setting up the habit to begin with.

  • Step it back to what you are actually willing to do every single day, and add from there.
  • As long as you are doing more than you have been doing, you’re heading in the right direction.
  • You’ll get there if you keep it up, adding a new step only when the former one seems fairly easy to do.

Choreographers don’t throw an entire routine at their dancers when they teach the dance steps.  They chunk it down in smaller segments. They tie things together by starting “from the top” — just as soon as the dancers have mastered each new combination.

“Fosse would take one count of eight and make you do it over and over and over,” says Broadway and Fosse veteran Rachelle Rak. “Something happens after all that repetition. Suddenly it feels good—you know, that feeling when you get something.”
“Legendary Moves” – DanceSpirit Magazine

The music cues the start of the routine, and the dancers build the HABIT of the steps that follow each proceeding step, each serving as the cue for the action that follows.

That’s what WORKS. It will work for you, too.

Getting Rid of Bad Habits

Do you bite your nails and want to STOP?  How about smoking?  Anything else you’d like to evict from your life?  As you will learn in the NEXT article in the Habit Series, GOALS drive Habit Formation, it’s always a good idea to know what you want.

In an upcoming article in this Series,Ten Best Practices for Habit Formation”  – a three-parter (4, 3, and 3 at a time) – I am going to expand a bit on some of the points I’ve introduced in the article above. We are going to take a look at some “tips and tricks” that others have used, and tweak them a bit in light of what we are learning about brain/behavior linkage.

It will serve as background for the more complicated discussion that takes on a few habit evictions – how to STOP old tapes from running so that you are able to drop bad habits.

Don’t miss it!

© 2014, 2017, all rights reserved
Check bottom of Home/New to find out the “sharing rules”
(reblogs always okay, and much appreciated)

Shared on the Senior Salon

Fosse reference: Photo by Jeremy Daniel; DanceSpirit Magazine
Nikka Graff Lanzarone as Velma Kelly in “Chicago” on Broadway

Nikka Graff Lanzarone (center) as Velma Kelly in “Chicago” on Broadway. Photo by Jeremy Daniel. – See more at:


No TIME to read all this stuff? Want more help?

man-on-phoneOnce my own life recovers from a relatively recent repair deficit situation where even the ability to use the systems I have put in place was taken from me at gunpoint, watch for the announcement of an upcoming 12-week TeleClass on Modular Success Systems.

It will help you sort through a great many of the “functional modules” so that you can design an action plan guaranteed to be easier than what most of you are currently attempting to work with.

Classes are a much cheaper alternative to hiring my personal coaching services (and the FIRST time I offer a new class is always your least expensive option by far!). As always, class size will be small to allow for personal attention, so don’t miss the announcement if you want to make sure you sign up before the first class fills.

If you already know that this is something you are going to want to be part of, let me know in a comment below and I’ll make sure you have advanced notice (don’t forget to fill in your name and email on the comment form or I won’t be able to contact you).

Meanwhile, keep reading as often as you can! Until my own life recovers, I won’t have the time to post very often, but there is A LOT already on the site. Don’t waste this free resource – and I’d REALLY appreciate it if you would help me out by taking a few moments from your own life to spread the word about the blog and the upcoming TeleClass, OK?

To double the benefit, whenever you read a new article, make it a habit to pick at least one of the Related Content links to read at the same time (embedded in the text and duplicated in the Related Links at the bottom of every post).

If you’ll “like” or comment after the pages you’ve read, it will help you keep track and will point others to posts you find especially helpful (as well as helping ME to know what you want me to write about).

© 2014, all rights reserved
Check bottom of Home/New to find out the “sharing rules”

As always, if you want notification of new articles in the Time & Task Management Series – or any new posts on this blog – give your email address to the nice form on the top of the skinny column to the right. (You only have to do this once, so if you’ve already asked for notification about a prior series, you’re covered for this one too). STRICT No Spam Policy.

Want to work directly with me? If you’d like some coaching help with anything that came up while you were reading this Series (one-on-one couples or group), click HERE for Brain-based Coaching with mgh, with a contact form at its end (or click the E-me link on the menubar at the top of every page). Fill out the form, submit, and an email SOS is on its way to me; we’ll schedule a call to talk about what you need. I’ll get back to you ASAP (accent on the “P”ossible!).

I’m still putting things back in place to allow me to be fully functional,
but I am ready to begin accepting a limited number of private clients beginning in April, 2014.

Leave me a comment if you’re interested, and I will get in touch with YOU.

You might also be interested in some of the following articles
available right now – on this site and elsewhere.

For links in context: run your cursor over the article above and the dark grey links will turn dark red;
(subtle, so they don’t pull focus while you read, but you can find them to click when you’re ready for them)
— and check out the links to other Related Content in each of the articles themselves —

Related articles right here on
(in case you missed them above or below)

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Related Articles ’round the net

BY THE WAY: Since is an Evergreen site, I revisit all my content periodically to update links — when you link back, like, follow or comment, you STAY on the page. When you do not, you run a high risk of getting replaced by a site with a more generous come-from.

About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

35 Responses to Changing a habit to change your LIFE

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  15. robjodiefilogomo says:

    Hmmm….I was one of those that believe the 21 day mark. It’s so true that if we hear something over and over we tend to believe it—yet I never thought to look into the real facts!
    Maybe they aren’t marketing the fact that it takes longer, because that’s not what people want to hear?
    Luckily I’m perfect, so I don’t need any new habits—ha ha ha ha ha!!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. About 30 years ago it took me a month to adjust to no sugar in my tea and de-caffeinated teabags. I had the most horrendous headache and flu-like symptoms for the first 2 weeks, and after that started to feel better. By the end of the month I felt better than I had felt in ages.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You bring up a good point where letting go of substance habits is concerned – where physical reactions must figure in, and I’m not sure those were included in the studies cited above.

      I’ve heard that giving up caffeine often results in severe headaches for a period of time following, almost immediately in many cases (not my own experience the [very] few times I’ve had to do it for medical procedures, btw). The more I read about what sugar does to the brain, the more I avoid using it. I’ve barely dipped into a bag of sugar bought well over a year ago – maybe longer. Fortunately, I drink my coffee black lol – and going gluten-free several years ago took almost ALL cookies and cakes off my plate. Chocolate is still my weakness – but I don’t keep it in the house anymore to reduce the temptation.

      Congrats on pushing through symptoms for the sake of your health. Interesting how the sweet-tooth tames after a while – many things we once enjoyed seem TOO sweet when we rarely indulge. Reinforcing.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Osyth says:

    Once upon a time I was an Olympic Rower. The best definition of rowing I have ever read is ‘the constant pursuit of perfection in one tiny movement’ … rowing was like a drug to me – an addiction to improving. Of course the competitive aspect was essential – I wanted to win. I still have many many habits associated to that time that I rely on … I am now wondering how long they actually took to concrete themselves into my fabric!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m impressed! I’ve never been much of a sports-woman, though I did dance at one time. You stumbled upon the most effective way to build habits when you were rowing – one bit at a time – and I’m sure your brain held on to the habits developed. Many studies tie effectiveness and brain-changes in athletes and musicians (especially) to how many hours a day they practice, btw – not how many days they practice. I’m guessing it didn’t take long for you to build your “perfection” routines.


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  29. Susanna says:

    Having read this I thought it was really informative.
    I appreciate you finding the time and energy to put this content together.

    I once again find myself personally spending a lot of time both reading and posting comments.

    But so what, it was still worthwhile!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree that it is worthwhile, Susanna – which is another reason I do it so often myself. In fact, some of my “best friends I’ve never met” have come from comment dialogues.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment HERE, by the way — and best of luck with your YouTube Channel.


  30. Glen Hogard says:

    Those of us who work with habits, good or bad, creating or breaking them, can benefit from moving from the common wisdom of the 30 day model to an evidence-based model. Setting up a specific time frame for habit formation is just as innacurate as telling someone how long they “should” take to grieve the loss of a love. Terrible

    Liked by 1 person

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