21 Days to Form a Habit?

If you’ve joined us for an Empathy Toy workshop, you know that we talk about trying to implement something that you’ve learned for 21 days. Why 21 days? Because (besides being very on brand) it’s said that’s how long it takes to form a habit.

But does the 21 days measure actually hold up when it comes to changing your behaviour or your mind? The answer is…


What is a habit, exactly?

Let’s start at the beginning. A habit is a behaviour that is repeated regularly and it tends to get easier over time. Habits tend to become subconscious things that we do automatically, and are typically broken down into 3 key elements.

  1. Trigger: This is how you know it’s time to do the action. Walking out your front door could be a trigger.

  2. Routine: This is when you do whatever the habit behaviour is. You check to make sure you have your keys.

  3. Reward: What do you get from doing this habit, or what do you avoid? In this case, you could avoid getting locked out.

All habits have these 3 components, no matter how big or small. There are also 3 types of habits:

  1. Motor Habits: This can be something that is about the way that you move, like the way you type.

  2. Intellectual Habits: These are patterns in the way that you think, like assumptions and biases, and also things like speed reading or relying on mnemonics.

  3. Character Habits: These are ways that we express character traits or values, like always being the first person to volunteer to help with a project.

We all have a lot of habits, some of which are good and some of which might be making it harder for us to be our best selves at work or in life. That’s why we encourage folks to choose a new habit to work on for 21 days after the workshop.

Where did this “21 Days” come from?

The idea that it takes 21 days to form a habit is tossed around all the time, but the idea likely originated in Dr. Maxwell Maltz’s 1960 book, Psycho-Cybernetics. Maltz makes an observation in the book, based on his work as a plastic surgeon that led to a big game of broken telephone. In observing patients who had a limb amputated or had plastic surgery he noted:

“[It takes] a minimum of 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.”

– Dr. Maxwell Maltz

Did you catch that?

A minimum.

Maltz never made the claim that 21 days is enough to change a habit or perception every time. And he didn’t even conduct a rigorous study: he was just making an observation! But catchy phrases like “21 days to form a habit” spread; it’s a timeline is short enough to get people excited but long enough that it feels believable. Soon the idea was showing up in self-help books and seminars and people were believing it.

So what does science say?

Phillippa Lally conducted a study at University College London in 2009 to find out how long it actually takes to form a habit. She found that on average, it took people 66 days to form a habit, but the range between responses was huge, from 18 days to 254 days. That’s a lot of variety!

You know what else has a lot of variety?


We’re all a little bit different, and the time it takes to form a habit depends on a number of things, like the habit itself, our experiences, our personality, and our schedule. So while you can form a habit in 21 days, it doesn’t work every time.

The good news? There are some things that make it easier to form a new habit.

We mostly focus on developing intellectual and character habits in our workshops and in the use of the Empathy Toy. We want you to be able to have the tools to change the way you think and to change your behaviour to better reflect your values. So here are some tips to help you on your way to success.

Let’s imagine that your new habit is to listen to other people’s ideas more in meetings.

  • Make that your only new habit, and start small. Focus on practicing this habit only in one type of meeting to start with.

  • Share your habit with a coworker. Find someone who can cheer you on when you get it right, and remind you when it’s not going so smoothly.

  • Create a positive parallel pattern. In this case, your habit of sharing your ideas right away might be triggered by someone asking “what should we do?” in a meeting. Consider making a habit to say “I’d love to hear what Marie thinks” so that you are inviting in someone else’s ideas instead of sharing your own.

  • Make sure you have a reward. In this case, you might get better ideas by inviting people with different experiences or ideas to contribute.

  • Get started right now! Messy progress or slow progress is still progress!

The sooner you start, the sooner you can get 21 days of the habit behind you. Even if it still seems like a work in progress at that point, you’ll be 21 days closer to getting the habit to stick than you were when you started!

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