There can be something so daunting about setting out to break an old habit or form a completely new one. While we’re often setting out to do something that is beneficial for ourselves, it’s not necessarily that knowledge that will compel us to keep up the habit for more than a few days. Because of this, there are many self-help books and habit-forming apps around that spruik some of the same myths about how to best form a habit. We take a look at four of them. Then bust them.
1. 21 days to form a habit
According to Wendy Wood, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, this myth was given birth by a popular book published in the 1960s (Psycho Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz). This oft-repeated adage becomes a mantra for some people as they plunge head-first into the world of self-help. In truth, research has shown that new habits form in different times and for different reasons. According to researchers from the University College of London, on average, it will take 66 days for a new habit to form.
Wood writes that it is more important to establish a routine than simply repeating an action day after day – the habit will form because of a connection to a certain time of day or location.
2. Successful people share the same habits
If you’ve ever felt compelled to read about “the habits all successful people share”, you know that there are countless articles attributing the success of high profile individuals with common quirks or habits. But according to Gretchen Rubin, who wrote Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, there is no secret formula or combination of the right habits you should be keeping to make your life more productive or successful. “You can point to a hugely successful person who had just about any set of habits you can think of,” she said when speaking with FastCompany. The thing most successful people do have in common, she says, is that they know what habits work for them.
3. If you miss even one day, you’ll break the habit
There’s a persistent shared thought instructing people to never miss a single day when trying to form a new habit because that simple skipped activity will “break the chain” and you’ll lose all of your progress. The same study that disproved the myth of 21 days also shows that missing occasional days won’t affect the formation of new habits. Like anything, it can be useful to take a break here and there, but you shouldn’t let yourself despair if you miss a day or two – just remember to get back in the habit the next day.
4. Setting goals is the best way to form a habit
Many place their faith in reaching for goals as the best way to form a habit. Wendy Wood believes this is misguided. According to Professor Wood, environmental change is the best influencer over our behaviour. People eat less junk food if it is in a container with a lid, and unhealthy snacks are less popular when placed at the back of shop displays. “Environments cue healthy behaviours”, she writes.