There is a long-held notion that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. I don’t even remember where I first heard this idea, but I took it as gospel long ago.
It was only when I started pondering this latest blog topic that I found out differently. According to Huffington Post blogger James Clear, in this 2014 blog, the widely-accepted three-week estimate is based solely on one researcher’s observations of a limited environment. Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon who practiced in the 1950s, observed that patients of his seemed to take about 21 days to grow accustomed to facial modifications (like a nose job), or to become acclimated to a missing, or artificial, limb.
In 1960, Dr. Maltz wrote a book relaying his observations on patient adaptation and behavior change, and the notion just took off. Pretty soon, the 21 day rule started to show up in self-help books and was accepted as fact. There was no empirical evidence to support it; Dr. Maltz observed it and wrote about it, and in no time at all (21 days??) it was accepted as fact.
Accurate or not – and later research indicates that, depending on the habit you’re trying to develop, it can take anywhere from an average of 18 to 66 days to change behavior – the 21 day rule can be helpful for many people who are trying to make lifestyle changes. Whether it is giving up cigarettes, or fast-food, or getting regular exercise, or drinking more water, adjusting to the new behavior in three weeks is short enough to be doable, but long enough to seem legit.
And lucky for me, I started making changes in my own behavior nearly three months ago. I didn’t find Clear’s article until after several new behaviors had already taken root. Ignorance is, indeed, bliss.
It’s not that I wouldn’t have attempted to adopt these new habits if I’d known it might take more than three weeks. The changes I’ve been making were necessary, and I’m certainly not sorry I’ve made them, but by the time late January rolled around, I felt like I had made it over the hump. If I had known the truth, I might have languished, or grown discouraged in my efforts.
But the good news is, I didn’t.
I made up my mind what I needed to do, and went about doing it. It involved more exercise, and a complete dietary overhaul.
If you’ve been reading along for a while, you may remember that last winter, my doctor told me I was pre-diabetic. My cholesterol was too high, and she really wanted me to drop some weight. And for a time, at least, that information scared me enough to make some minor changes. But I didn’t really change for the long haul.
You know how it goes. You see the dentist and he says you need to floss more, so you start flossing. For about a week. Then you miss a day or two, and before you know it, the floss has migrated to the back of the bathroom drawer. Some habits are just not as easy to acquire as others, because as much as they may benefit us, they’re not particularly fun. For instance, If a doctor ever told me to get into the habit of eating Nutella straight from the jar, or baking chocolate chip cookies every day, I’d have that down pat in three days, not three weeks. But these are not habits the doctor is likely to suggest.
Back in the day, exercise was never a problem for me. I wasn’t an athletic kid, but after I had my children, I worked hard to get back into my pre-baby jeans, and I exercised at the gym regularly. For a time, I was even a pretty dedicated runner. In my early 40s, I ran two marathons. It probably helped that I used to be a personal trainer. It’s much easier to stay in shape when you’re in a gym eight hours a day.
In the intervening decade, I changed careers, and traded my gym rat life for a desk job that provided health insurance and a retirement plan. And I got lazy. And tired. And kinda doughy.
At some point late last year, maybe in the afterglow of my graduation, it struck me that I really wasn’t feeling tip-top. There was nothing specific I could put my finger on; it was just that I was tired all the time, and no activity appealed to me as much as crashing on the couch and studying the latest offerings from Netflix.
It also occurred to me that I wanted very much to find a new job, and whatever that job would be – chasing Foo Fighters around the globe, or advocating for hungry children – I was going to need to be strong and healthy if I wanted to have the energy to do it.
So in January, I began a new, post-graduate project. I started a master’s program about me.
Out went the junk in the kitchen, replaced by more fruits and vegetables. I switched off the television and dusted off my sizeable collection of exercise videos. I knew if I joined a gym, I wouldn’t go. No matter. I had all the tools I needed in my spare room, along with a quarter-mile track right out my front door.
I’d love to tell you I dropped 20 pounds immediately, but Rome wasn’t built in a day, you know. So far, I’ve lost about 12 pounds. Nothing spectacular, but there’s still progress being made. It’s not always easy, as I still love to cook, and bake, and eat. Sometimes it’s tough to toe the dietary line, but I’ve found that if I eat well, and moderately, most of the time, I can still indulge in the occasional treat.
The scale may not show much evidence of progress, but I can see it in other places. Muscles are starting to fight their way to the surface. My core strength and balance are improving. And I’m fast!
Last summer when I was walking every morning at the track, I was moving at a good pace – on a really good day, I walked a mile in about 15:45. But last week, I was pushing a 15 minute mile. I haven’t walked that fast since my early 30s. It might be that I’m carrying around less baggage, but I think it’s probably the strength training.
Right now I’m about halfway through a 13-week routine called P90X3. This is not my first time to “work out” with fitness guru Tony Horton, but it’s the first time I’ve remained consistent with one of his programs. Tony is a funny guy, and he’s very encouraging. The workouts are unique, challenging, and hard as hell, but I’m doing them. Straight leg push-ups. Dozens of them. Squats. Lunges. Pull-ups. Agility work. Yoga. Pliometrics. You name it, I’m doing it.
I have a long way to go, but I’ll get there. I’ll be better. Stronger. Faster than I was.
The Bionic Jewish Mother. Has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?