The number 1 myth: you can break a habit in 21 days.
If that were true that you could break a habit in 21 days, why can’t more of us do it? Because the answer is (mostly) ‘you can’t’. Unfortunately, there are so many “challenges” out these days that are 5 days or 30 days and they advertise that they will change your life (and they might for a minute, but IT WON’T LAST). You think to yourself that “Yes, I can do that. I can do it for 30 days”. You can do it for 30 days, but it will mostly make NO DIFFERENCE over time.
In August of 2012, I was fed up with myself. I wanted to get into a better exercise habit and I wanted to have better eating habits, but nothing I did ever lasted (meaning I’d start out great with my habits, but then they’d taper off into non-existence, and I’d be back to where I started).
One morning that month I woke up with the thought that:
people mostly know what they need to do to be healthy and well and mostly know what they need not to do to be healthy and well. We. Just. Don’t. Do. It.
So I created a game – a game of experimenting and playing with changing habits. The first thing that occurred to me was that calling them “habits” isn’t useful. Habits are those things you don’t have to think about, they sort of do themselves through you. I knew I needed something WAY more conscious than that. I needed deliberate practice.
I called the game The Well Being Challenge. The game involved creating practices with both rewards and consequences. I called my three kids and their spouses and got everyone to play with me for a 16-week challenge. I thought four months would be enough time to break my unwanted habits and instill the habits I wanted to have, although that was a gut intuition, since I’ll I’d ever heard was that it took about 21 days. Since then several hundred people have played this Challenge (I turned it into a little business).
Here’s what I discovered – when you need to break (or create) a habit, especially one that is difficult for you – it can take at least a year. More than 60% of the people who’ve done my Challenge have signed up for more than one round, and many did three. Interestingly enough, three Challenges is a year.
Yes, the study cited by Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit talked about some habits needing 264 days to change – but what doesn’t get highlighted about that study often enough is that the reason they said it took 264 days is because that is when the study ended. So, it’s at least 264 days for some habits, but could be even longer than that (had the study gone on longer we would have better data).
You can change a habit in a second, but that doesn’t matter if you can’t sustain the change. My experience and that of people who’ve played the Well Being Challenge is that it takes at least a year for the harder or more embodied habits, and for some things, it may take even longer – this is why so many people did three Challenges in a row.
Knowing this may make you sigh with a bit of resignation. That means changing habits is likely to be hard. But you already knew that. You just haven’t yet put in the right effort over a long enough period with enough support to have made and sustained the changes you want to make.
“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all”
The difficulty can be comparing ourselves to those people who can change a habit in a second and never go back. Do not count on this to be you. Plan on taking a year and create the right practices (and accountability for your practices) that will have you succeed. If you really want to change some habits, plan on putting in the needed hard work.
Since then, based on the same premise, I created the Business Mastery Challenge for entrepreneurs. The design includes creating practices (which become habits over time) that boost your business results while nurturing your health and happiness. According to participants, it’s life changing – because it includes creating the right practices, over the appropriate amount of time with enough support to make the difference.
Andrea Bednar is an executive coach with more than 25 years experience. All of her clients gain clarity and confidence about the heart of their purpose and they fulfill their goals – producing results beyond their expectations. Coaching programs are designed as a one year journey for the reasons above.