Have you ever heard that it takes 21 days to change or set a habit? Have you tried it and has it worked?
It is a lie. The lie started in 1960 when the Dr. Maltz published his thoughts on behavior change in a book called Psycho-Cybernetics (audiobook). Dr. Maltz observed his patients and how long it took them to adjust to their new lives after an operation. He found that after a face altering operation, such as nose jobs, or scar-correcting surgery, it took patients about 21 days to see their new faces as part of their identity. Similarly, when a patient had an arm or a leg amputated, Dr. Maltz noticed that the patient would sense and react to a phantom limb for about 21 days. After 21 days, the patient adjusted to the new situation – still sensing the fantom limb, but not reacting to its existence.
Maltz wrote about these experiences – “these, and many other commonly observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.”
In later years, true to human nature, we removed the part that says “it requires a minimum of 21days…” and just started preaching that “it takes 21 days…”
We really do want to have easy answers.
“How many days does it take?” we ask.
We don’t want to hear: “I don’t know.” We cannot admit that we don’t know. That is why we love a God we haven’t seen and entrust our entire existence to him. The answer to HOW did we start to exist and WHY did we start to exist is:
“I don’t know.”
The answer to HOW do we solve our political problems and create development that includes all is:
“I don’t know.”
That is not acceptable for majority of us.
I still like the 3 weeks mark for changing or introducing a new habit. When I was learning to drive, I found a video clip encouraging me to drive daily for 3 weeks. This video also encouraged reading driving literature and listen to driving courses daily.
The idea is to repeat an act or behavior daily, and flood the entire brain and existence with whatever you are learning or unlearning.
What this does is that we start to see patterns in the nature of whatever we are trying to learn. Things that didn’t make sense before connect to something else and it all starts to make sense.
It can a long time to break a habit or learn a new habit because sometimes, we are not ready. Therefore, we are fighting the change. Have you ever felt the interconnection between your identity and your habits/action in the moment? Often, we are afraid that if we change, we don’t know who we become. When I moved to a new country, it took me 3 years to feel that I could make a new home in the new country. In these 3 years, I lived as if this move it was a temporary state. My friends and I spoke about “when I came back…”
Once I detached my identity from the past, I started to feel a change happening. Suddenly, I was just a student in a foreign country. I was a heartbroken girl trying to get over a love. Because my heart-breaker was in Nairobi, I was no longer going back to Nairobi. What if I was taking a walk and I met him in the streets with someone else? That wouldn’t do. My future was not going to involve friends who were on his side and because we had so many mutual friends, suddenly I was almost friendless. Which was god-sent because daily conversation with others and with myself changed. I started to recruit, vet and admit new friends and I removed my past from my future plans.
From that day forward, my 21 days towards a new life began.
Within 21 days, I had made the decision to make new friends. To block telephone numbers and to travel to a new destination that year. Once I made up my mind, 21 days became days of setting the plan into action. After 21 days, life became all about repeating my resolve, setting new goals and strengthening new friendships.
That is how I believe 21 days works. Not to make a complete change, but to start the process of change and to start practicing the change on a daily basis.