Why March 6th Holds the Key to Your New Year’s Resolution

updated May 3, 2019
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(Image credit: Ana Kamin)

Ever heard that it takes 21 days to form a habit? Turns out, it may require longer than just three weeks for your New Year’s resolution to become second nature. New research shows that it takes 66 days on average to form a habit — busting the old 21-day myth.

That means if you began working towards a new goal for 2018 on January 1st — perhaps drinking more water or writing in a gratitude journal — March 6th is when your new daily activity is likely to become an unstoppable good habit.

So we looked into the science behind 66 — the new magic number for habit formation.

Where did the “21 days” habit myth come from?

Researchers at University College London tracked down the source of this misinformation. In a book published in 1960 called Psycho-Cybernetics, psychologist Dr. Maxwell Maltz writes, “It usually requires a minimum of about 21 days to effect any perceptible change in a mental image. Following plastic surgery it takes about 21 days for the average patient to get used to his new face. When an arm or leg is amputated the ‘phantom limb’ persists for about 21 days. People must live in a new house for about three weeks before it begins to ‘seem like home.’ 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 gel.”

It’s unclear how anecdotal evidence from plastic surgery patients that speaks to adjusting to a new reality or environment, rather than forming a new habit, became so widespread. The UCL researchers argue that habituation (what Matz describes above) may have been mistaken for habit formation. “One possibility is that the distinction between the term habituation (which refers to ‘getting used’ to something) and habit formation (which refers to the formation of a response elicited automatically by an associated situation) was lost in translation somewhere along the line.”

In other words, adjusting to something new is pretty different than responding or acting in a new way.

(Image credit: Ana Kamin)

Why 66 days is the new 21

So how long does it actually take to form a new habit or integrate a resolution into your daily life? The UCL team didn’t stop at getting to the bottom of the 21-day myth — they also determined a new, scientific magic number for us to start quoting.

They asked a group of participants to pursue a health-related activity on a daily basis for 84 days. Each day, the participants measured how “automatic” the activity felt — the researchers decided that a behavior (like taking a vitamin or reading before bed) has officially become a habit when it’s automatic and you don’t have to think about doing it.

When the participants’ automaticity measurement reached its highest point then plateaued, this signaled a habit had been formed. On average, it took 66 days for a participant to create a habit. Keep in mind, this is just an average. For one person, it only took 18 days. But for another it required 254. This likely has to do with the activity itself. For example, it’s probably more challenging to run three miles per day than it is to record your breakfast in an app each morning.

In other words, while the best estimate is that it takes 66 days for a resolution to become routine, it ultimately depends on who you are and what you’re trying to accomplish. However, as long as you stay consistent, a habit will eventually form. But probably not in three weeks.

If you’re feeling disappointed or discouraged that it may take longer than 21 days to achieve your 2018 goals, we get it. Who doesn’t want to see results more quickly? But as the age-old saying goes, “Information is power.” Understanding the science behind habit formation and the time required to succeed will ultimately set you up for resolution triumph.

Hang in there — March 6th is less than two months away. To stay on track until then, try this 5-letter trick to make your resolutions stick.