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As you’re drafting your New Year’s resolutions, you may think that it takes 21 days of repeating an action for that action to become a habit. So, you set out to go to the gym for 21 days, thinking that by day 22 heading to the gym will feel automatic — maybe even fun. It can be daunting to think about going to the gym for a whole year, but 21 days is doable.
We hate to burst your bubble, but that 21-day estimate isn’t true. According to habit expert and myth buster Wendy Wood, this falsehood came from a self-help book in the 1960s and actually described how long it takes to get used to your new appearance after plastic surgery.
How long does it take for a habit to form? It’s a question many of us want answered in those early, effortful days of habit-building. When will I floss every morning without having to think about it? When will I no longer need a reminder to take my medication? When will choosing to hit the gym feel easy?
Unfortunately, our recent research shows that no magic number exists.
So what are we supposed to do? We know that people with well-established habits need to rely less on willpower to execute good behaviors, but the early days of executing a good behavior typically feel like a slog for everyone. Only after consistent repetition will the desired behavior start to feel more effortless.