Creating a new healthy habit, is 21 days really all it takes?

5 minutes   Published on May 20, 2022

The science behind behaviour change for sustainable weight loss. 

When asked how long it takes to form a habit, many people will confidently assert “21 days”!

What many don’t know is where this widely touted idea that it takes 21 days to change a behaviour started. Spoiler: it wasn’t in a research lab, or at the hands of a socio-psychological professional.

As a plastic surgeon in the 1950s, a Dr. Maxwell Maltz observed a pattern among his patients — that it would take about 21 days for them to adjust to seeing their new nose or cease to sense phantom limbs after amputations. This observation prompted Maltz to notice that it also took him about 21 days to form a new habit.

Writing about this experience, Maltz said “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.”

This quote was then included in his blockbuster book, Psycho-Cybernetics. And Maltz’s philosophy that it takes, “a minimum of about 21 days” soon became “it takes 21 days to form a new habit.”

With such a major misunderstanding floating around as fact, is it any wonder then that so many of us experience frustration and guilt when we can’t form a new habit in 21 days?

This anecdote is reflective of much of the discourse around habit and behaviour change — terms and timelines are stated without the educational piece on what behaviour change is, i.e. what the science says. Again, this leaves many people feeling defeated and throwing in the towel altogether. Something I see all too often in new members.

However, behaviour is a key determinant of health and new behaviours, which then become habits, must be created to achieve sustainable weight loss. So having realistic expectations around how long it takes to turn those new behaviours into repeated habits is critical to help maintain commitment and motivation.

At Digital Wellness, our platforms assist people to create these habits that are conducive to sustainable weight loss.

We know from our members’ results that behaviour change is possible when it’s informed by the latest science and research, not sexy catchphrases with neat and tidy deadlines.

Theories and models of behaviour change 

Behaviour is complex, influenced by a wide range of psychological, social, societal and contextual factors such as emotions, habits and routines. Which is why a one size fits all approach rarely works.

The role of behavioural models is to help us, as health professionals, understand the complexity of behaviour and identify the underlying factors that shape it. Understanding both of these elements allows us to develop effective intervention strategies for our clients.

There are many socio-psychological models of behaviour change — over 60 in fact — but the common element to all of them is that changing a behaviour requires:

  • Identifying the behaviour that you want to change
  • Understanding the cues and triggers for this behaviour
  • Finding alternative behaviours to support the change
  • Having strategies to maintain the change.

What these models also help us do is identify the best techniques to change behaviour.

Research shows us that dietary and physical activity change are best supported by developing self efficacy:

  • Learning the new behaviour
  • Implementing self-monitoring practices. For example, eg tracking food intake and exercise activity
  • Having strategies for relapse prevention (anticipating setbacks, problem-solving, reflecting on what has and hasn’t worked)
  • Focusing on setting goals that motivate you in a positive way. For example, setting a target for vegetable intake, steps or a consistent bedtime
  • Scheduling prompts to stimulate behaviour. For examples, smart phone reminders to pack your gym bag.

Digital Wellness incorporates the latest science on behaviour change into its platforms, meaning that users are empowered with the best evidence-based weight loss solution on the market.

In line with the evolving science, the role of the health coaches that Digital Wellness members have access to has also shifted. Once upon a time, health coaches told clients what behaviours to change. Now, it is best practice to support clients to make the changes they want to make. This allows for the personal motivations for the individual to be addressed, increasing the likelihood of change.

So, while the bad news is that changing a behaviour isn’t as easy as doing it for 21 days, the great news is that equipped with the latest science behind how habits are formed, and the right tools, people can make the lasting changes they need to to achieve their health goals.

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