Make A Habit In 21 Days

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Is It Realistic To Think You Can Make A Habit In 21 Days?

How long has it been that we have been saying, “make a habit in 21 days?” Well, that would be back since the 1950’s when a surgeon noticed that many things seemed to take 21 days. This surgeon, Dr. Maxwell Maltz, wrote a book about it called Psycho Cybernetics.

The problem though in this observation that started this make a habit in 21 days philosophy is that he said minimum 21 days and the minimum got forgotten. One could very well make a habit in 21 days, but it could take a bit longer. It is kind of like those stories you told in school to show you how gossip can get out of hand. One person told a story to the person next to him, then that person told the story to the person next to him and on down the line. By the end of the line, the person tells a story that sounds nothing like the one from the beginning.

A later study done in 2010, a small study, did show that it often could average 66 days, but this is variable. There are a lot of factors to consider. Two main ones are the length of time someone has had a particular habit and the emotional attachment associated with that particular habit. This will determine just how set those neural pathways are in the brain.

What Are Neural Pathways?

make a habit in 21 daysNeurons or nerve cells are the foundation of your nervous system, which includes your brain. These nerve cells often group together, establishing a belief or behavior. When they hang out together, this is a neural pathway.

Think of your brain like a field of grass for a minute. If you let dogs out in your yard that has just had grass planted, what will happen? Your dogs have certain paths they like to take. Maybe a line down to the pond or maybe the perimeter of the fence. Pretty soon, you will have worn paths through the grass where they tend to travel. A definite pathway is madeSame with a grassy path along a rode. Same concept, you will have a worn path with tire tracks through the grass going to a certain destination.

It is the same in your brain. These neural pathways come together in the forming of a habit. Let’s say you bought a dog. Now when you come home from work, he greets you at the door with his leash. So, you take him for a walk. The next day, he does the same thing. Pretty soon that is just what you do every day after work. So, these nerve cells cluster together in the making of this neural pathway that we call a habit.

Basically, the cells string together something like this, you come in the door, there is cell A, "Please take me for a walk"the dog with leash,



So, you walk the dog...


cell B says time to take the dog for a walk so you do,


cell C tells you it makes the dog happy and makes you feel good for making the dog happy. The benefit, he's happy, you are happy.





This is a simplistic explanation, of course, but the basic premise is that these nerve cells now make this pathway in your brain.  This pathway that we call a habit of taking the dog for a walk after work.

Another example might be eating chocolate when you are stressed. When a stressful event happens, you reach for the chocolate. It provides you with a sense of comfort, at least temporarily. It is like your brain now has associated chocolate with comfort.

Variables To Consider To Make A Habit In 21 Days

In review, there are two basic variables to consider in determining how long it might take to make a new habit pattern.

  1. How long you have had the habit (just how established that neural pathway is)
  2. The emotional involvement you might have toward that habit.

Whether you can make a habit in 21 days or break one lies in these neural pathways. And though humans are simple in many ways, we are also quite complex. The emotional attachments we have to certain habits may have obvious reasons, but some may be subconscious. That makes it a little more challenging. For some habits, there could be underlying reasons why we are resistant to let go of that particular habit, even consciously knowing they aren’t particularly healthy ones. This will make certain neural pathways stronger and more difficult to change.

If you have been doing something for years, that neural pathway, just like that worn path through the grass, is well established and it might take longer then 21 days to change. Remember that 21 days was stated to be the minimum. Be patient, be determined. If you goof up along the way, don’t give up, just keep working on it. Add some positive emotional attachment to end result you’d like to achieve.

Use Some Strategy To Make A Habit in 21 Days

Habits form in a typical pattern. Changing the “reminder” or trigger can create a different pathway. Remember every habit forms by this basic rule, it has:

  1. Reminder (there is something that actually precedes or triggers the behavior)
  2. Routine (this is the actual behavior that the reminder triggered you to take)
  3. Reward (this is the benefit you get from doing that behavior)

The neural pathway to habit

My example with the taking the dog for a walk would look something like this. You come home from work, open the door to come in and here is the neural pathway in creation:


A.  Reminder or trigger: Dog sitting at door with the leash.

B. Routine or behavior that elicits: You take the dog for a walk.

C. Reward or benefit: Your dog is happy, you don’t feel guilty and you have a nice evening together.

Every day after work your dog greets you at the door with the leash and you take him for a walk.  This habit is being set as a neural pathway in your brain.

It is important to mention that the benefit you get from a behavior may be simply a perceived benefit, not necessarily a healthy one. Of course, in our walking the dog example, this is a healthy habit. What about eating junk food when we are depressed or a cigarette for another reason. It gives us temporary comfort of some sort, hence a benefit. It may help us feel good briefly, but neither of these are healthy habits.

We do things primarily to get pleasure or avoid pain. That is something to keep in mind as you are determining what might be your triggers for behaviors. If you can tackle the triggers, replacing them with new triggers that elicit the behavior you are seeking, it can help make new neural pathways to a new habit.

Keeping with our theme of roads or pathways, here is a quote from Mario Andretti to encourage you,  Road to successful habit changing

“Desire is the key to motivation, but it’s the determination and commitment to unrelenting pursuit of your goal – a commitment to excellence – that will enable you to attain the success you seek.”


The fact you have read this to the end means you are quite serious in making better habits. Keep it up, plan your strategy and if you do backslide, no worries, just keep at it. Make the pathways you want even if you take a step off the path you are working on from time to time.

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