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VERIFY: How long does it takes to form a new habit?

Have you stuck with your New Year's resolution? If not, it may take more time to build a habit than you think.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — If you made a New Year’s resolution, it’s still probably too early to know if it’s become an actual habit yet, and according to one study, it may take a little longer to build that habit than you previously thought. 

THE QUESTION

Does it always take 21 days to form a habit?

SOURCES

  • Jackie Greco, Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor with Sun Counseling and Wellness
  • 2009 study on habit forming done by Phillippa Lally 

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THE ANSWER

This is false.

No, it doesn't always take 21 days to form a habit.

WHAT WE FOUND

The thought that it takes 21 days to build a habit goes back to the 1950s. 

"A plastic surgeon wrote a paper about when patients are getting used to looking at their new face after they've received plastic surgery," Greco said. "He noticed that it took an average of 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and for a new image to take place when it came to looking at your face and seeing that it looks differently after plastic surgery." 

Greco says she believes that observation was misinterpreted into becoming a "rule" that it takes 21 days of completing a task to firmly build a new habit. 

To test that theory, Phillippa Lally conducted a study to investigate the process of forming a habit. In 2009, Lally had 96 volunteers choose an eating, drinking or activity to carry out daily in the same context for 12 weeks. Each day, the participants recorded whether they carried out that behavior. 

Lally found that 82 of the study's participants provided sufficient data for analysis. 

"What she found was that, on average, it takes about two months, or 66 days, before a new behavior becomes automatic," Greco said. 

However, that wasn't the case for everyone. For some, it took as little as 18 days. For others, it took as long as 254 days to form a new habit. 

There's no specific reason why it takes some people longer to form a new habit. Instead, Greco says there is a variety of reasons.

“It depends on the behavior itself that you're trying to change, it depends on the person," Greco said. "And it depends on the circumstances that are both in and out of people's control when they're trying to change.”

The study found missing one opportunity to perform the behavior did not affect the habit formation process. Greco agrees.

“When we are only focused on the goal of whether or not we completed that task, what we're not focusing on are building those conscious behaviors and processes to make sure that we're actually incorporating a new habit into our daily life," she said. 

Contact Meghan Bragg at mbragg@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

VERIFY is dedicated to helping the public distinguish between true and false information. The VERIFY team, with help from questions submitted by the audience, tracks the spread of stories or claims that need clarification or correction. Have something you want VERIFIED? Text us at 704-329-3600 or visit /verify.