What Does it REALLY Take To Build a Habit?

There's a myth floating around about habits taking 21 days to form but I'm here to debunk it.

We hear it repeated everywhere, all the time, including the weight loss and fitness world but it's simply not true. This belief actually stems from a plastic surgeon named Maxwell Maltz in the 1950s who noticed after performing operations it would take patients about 21 days before they'd begin to get used to their changed appearance.

He wrote about these experiences stating "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 the 60's he published his beliefs in what turned out to be a best selling book called Psycho-Cybernetic.

In the decades since popular self help gurus latched on to his work and the more people who spoke of his story the more it got changed from "it takes a minimum of 21 days to get used to changes" to "it takes 21 days to create a habit."

That's how this popular belief became so widely believed to be as fact.

But no. One study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology determined it can take anywhere from 2 to 8 months to build a new behavior into your life.

Lifestyle and long term habits are literally entrenched into our brains at the neural level so they are powerful determinants of behavior and difficult to change.

And the more (and longer) we rely on the habit, the harder it is to change.

Why Are Habits Created?

Habits occur because our minds are inherently wired to survive and having our brains wire autopilot habits is a real advantage. Running on autopilot for the things that our brains deem necessary for survival gives us all kinds of extra mental energy to devote to other things as we go about most of our day driven by habit.

And habits can become so ingrained that we keep doing them even when they actually become destructive – because the brain recognizes them as essential for survival.

How Are Habits Actually Created?

Every habit starts with a psychological pattern called a "habit loop," which is a three-part process.

  1. First, there's a cue, or trigger, that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and let a behavior unfold.

  2. Then there's the routine, which is the behavior itself.

  3. The third step is the reward: something that your brain likes that helps it remember the "habit loop" in the future.

Another myth we often hear about habits is this notion that bad habits can be broken. Also not true. Old habits never die. Once your brain has learned a habit, it doesn’t go away so trying to just stop a habit, is an exercise in futility. And, continuing to try to diet the habits away, is not only futile but actually damaging.

Old habits can only become masked by new habits.

How Are New Habits Actually Created?

  1. Recognize the trigger for your bad habit - Breaking your bad habit requires carefully paying attention to what, where, when, and why your habit is triggered.

  2. Wire a new healthy or positive habit to override the bad-habit trigger – Once you recognize the trigger, the trick is to consciously and mindfully repeat your new desired behavior, action, or thought instead. The better the new habit makes you feel, the easier and faster this will happen so if you’re trying to rewire a new habit loop with a strict diet or workout program that’s making you miserable… it’s almost never going to work.

Wiring a brand new habit works much the same way as rewiring old habits but you get to pick something to be your trigger instead of having to recognize what an existing one is.

For example, when I started lifting, I would go straight downstairs to start my workout as soon as I dropped my daughter off at school. My routine became drop her off, come home, go downstairs. So getting home from dropping her off became my trigger. I didn't even think about it after awhile, I just automatically went downstairs every morning when I got home.

So, look for things in your day that you can use as triggers for any new habits you want to create and use the trigger, behavior, reward process above to start wiring, or rewiring, your own.

People don't decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures.

Why is all this important to know? Well because in a lot of ways, our habits determine our lives.

And because we really need to start adjusting our expectations. So often we jump into these 21 day challenges thinking a brand new life is waiting for us on the other side if we just stay strong for a mere 21 days.

It's only 21 days after all! Right?

But after a few days it starts getting hard. A week or two in and we fall off.

We judge and blame ourselves ...feeling like if we were only stronger or better or had more willpower we could be as successful as everyone else. Then we give up because we feel defeated and blame ourselves for failing.

But it's not you failing to build a habit in 21 days, it's that the concept simply has no basis in how habits are really formed.

Instead of trying to white knuckle your way through a strict program for that not so realistic 21 day time frame work WITH your brain and how it actually wires a habit: trigger, behavior, reward... repeated over time.


  1. Start slow, be patient and accept that you're signing on for the long haul.

  2. Believe in yourself and be patient with yourself while you work at it

  3. Accept that you will slip and fall back into old habits ...maybe even over and over again for quite some time. Refer back to the patience remarks and just keep going.

  4. Set reasonable goals and don't start trying to overhaul everything at once. Baby steps.

  5. Get additional help and support if needed

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About The Author

Roni Davis
Cognitive Eating Founder

Writer, Producer, Host - It's All In Your Head Podcast

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Roni Davis spent over two decades struggling with weight, food (mindless, emotional and binge eating), an eating disorder, depression, panic attacks, and an anxiety disorder. She's also been a nationally qualified champion figure athlete, written for bodybuilding websites, was featured in a national fitness magazine, by Bodybuilding.com and spent almost a decade helping people transform their bodies as an award-winning personal trainer and nutrition and wellness coach.


After over two decades of her own personal weight & food struggles and almost a decade in the weight loss/fitness industry, Roni left the fitness industry and bundled everything she learned from her own recovery, from her time as a trainer & nutrition & wellness coach with everything she learned in her mindfulness-based cognitive behavior coach training, to create Cognitive Eating.  This allows her to guide and support people to live healthier lives through behavior and habit modification at the brain level, where it counts and will actually stick.

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NOTE: While counselors or therapists often use CBT to deal with mental illness or a patient’s mental/emotional conditions and/or processing trauma, MBCT & cognitive eating does not. My roll as a coach, in its most simple form, is to encourage, coach and/or act as a facilitator of a client’s self-reflection, decision making, planning for the future, and creating life changes. As an MBCT & cognitive eating coach, I am obligated to refer clients in need of mental or physical health therapy to an appropriate licensed professional.  

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