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The 21 days to change a habit: a myth debunked!

Goodbye to the myth of 21 days to create a new habit! This myth was propagated years ago by a plastic surgeon, but in reality, there are many factors that come into play to adopt a new habit, especially if motivation is low.

How did this myth originate?

It is in 1960 that Maxwell Maltza plastic surgeon, published a book that became very popular and generated this false myth of 21 days to change a habit. Maltz had observed that his patients adapted to the changes of plastic surgery in about 21 days. Yet changing one's appearance is not the same as changing addictive behaviors that affect our bodies or our lives in general. Now, a new Caltech study, published in the journal Proceedings of National Academy of Sciencesrefutes this theory.

A multitude of factors in play

Researchers at the University of Chicago and the University of analyzed data from more than 30,000 gym members over four years, as well as from more than 3,000 hospital workers who washed their hands on nearly 100 rounds, an average of 40 million times. Using machine learning tools to determine when people's behaviors became predictable, the researchers found that developing a new habit takes time and depends on the habit itself.

There is no “magic number”

Contrary to the popular belief of a “magic number” of days to develop a habit, the study shows that it usually takes several months to develop the habit of going to the gym or several weeks to wash your hands regularly in the hospital, explains Colin Camerer the director of the study. Thus, there are many psychosocial factors that influence our behaviors, and simple habits, such as or drinking alcohol, are difficult to eliminate, while complex habits, such as regular exercise or dieting, are more difficult to establish.

Previous studies and the new study

Several studies have already refuted Maltz's hypothesis. A 2009 study estimated that it took two months to develop a new daily habit, such as eating breakfast. The difference between these studies and the new one is that they analyzed hard data on sports attendance or hand washing, not surveys, which left a large margin of error.

What about long-term habits?

Researchers found that two-thirds of gym participants went to the gym on the same days of the week, primarily Mondays and Tuesdays. This finding supports the theory that we tend to implement positive changes in our habits during times when we feel a fresh start, such as the new year or going back to school after vacation. To maintain a regular exercise routine, participants needed four to seven months, more than double the time estimated by previous studies.

Patience and motivation are key

The results of this study show that adopting a new habit does not just take 21 days, but rather much longer. This ultimately depends on the of the individual, as well as the time and effort required to meet the challenge. For most of us, a new habit is learned with a lot of patience and dedication, but especially if we have a good source of motivation.

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