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The Science of Habit Formation: How Long Does It Take to Develop a New Habit?

Executive Coaching Aides in Habit Forming

Executive Leadership Coaching Helps Form New Habits

There is a widespread belief that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. This notion is often attributed to Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon in the 1950s who noticed his patients seemed to acclimate to their new faces or limbs after approximately 21 days. However, modern psychology and neuroscience have a more nuanced understanding of this process.  A habit is a routine of behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously. Habits are integral parts of our daily lives, influencing everything from our morning routines to our professional tasks. They can be good (like exercising regularly) or bad (like excessive screen time). Regardless of whether we aim to develop new habits or change old ones, understanding the timeline of habit formation can be beneficial, especially when working on habits as part of the executive leadership coaching process with Jeff Oskin.

The Myth of 21 Days

The “21-day rule” is somewhat of a misconception. Dr. Maltz’s observation was more anecdotal than empirical, and he himself stated that “it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve.” This became misinterpreted over time, leading to the widespread belief in the 21-day rule.

The Real Timeframe for Habit Formation

In a 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, researchers Phillippa Lally and colleagues from University College London set out to determine how long it really takes to form a habit. Over 96 participants chose an eating, drinking, or activity behavior to carry out daily in the same context for 12 weeks, while they reported on whether or not they did the behavior and how automatic it felt.

The study concluded that, on average, it takes 66 days for a habit to become automatic or habitual, but the range can be anywhere from 18 to 254 days. It’s a stark contrast to the catchy 21-day rule, and it underscores the importance of perseverance when trying to form a new habit.

Factors Influencing Habit Formation

The duration of habit formation can vary considerably depending on several factors:

  1. The complexity of the habit: Simpler habits like drinking a glass of water after waking up are easier to form than complex ones like a 1-hour workout each morning.
  2. Individual differences: People’s personalities, behaviors, and attitudes can influence how quickly they form habits. Some people are naturally more inclined towards routine and consistency, while others might struggle.
  3. Consistency: The more consistently you perform the behavior, the quicker it will become a habit. Habits form by creating a new neural pathway in your brain, and each time you repeat the behavior, you’re reinforcing this pathway.
  4. Motivation and commitment: If you are highly motivated and committed to the habit, you are more likely to stick with it, leading to faster habit formation.

The Importance of Patience and Perseverance

Regardless of how long it takes, the key takeaway is that habit formation is a process, not an event. It’s vital not to be discouraged if a new habit doesn’t stick after 21 days or even after 66 days and this is where an executive coach can really assist your efforts. By partnering with a good executive coach, they will help you focus on the progress made and help you understand that setbacks are a normal part of the process. The path to successful habit formation is rarely a straight line, but with patience, perseverance, and a good coach, the desired change is achievable.


New habit formation through executive leadership coaching varies widely based on the complexity of the habit, individual differences, consistency in executing the habit, and one’s motivation and commitment, taking a considerable amount of time and effort. Instead of focusing on a set number of days, it’s critical to concentrate on the process of habit formation. As is the practice with Jeff Oskin, executive leadership coaching should acknowledge small victories, learn from setbacks, stay patient, persistent, and track the progress, keeping an assessment chart handy to gauge the development of the habit. Whether it’s developing new leadership skills, refining business processes or enhancing communication skills, executives who commit to habit formation are more likely to achieve the outcomes they seek. Contact Jeff Oskin today to learn how our executive leadership coaching process supports long-term habit formation.