How to build lasting habits
December 2022 | The Learning and Wellbeing Team

For a very long time, the widely held view was that a new habit could be formed in just 21 consecutive days of practice. Sounds simple enough. Work hard for three weeks, and you are set. As it turns out, the 21-habit rule is a myth that can be traced back to the work of a plastic surgeon, Dr. Maxwell Maltz, who, in 1960, was writing about how patients recover from surgery. He estimated that patients require a minimum of just 21 days to adapt. How this simple observation evolved into a widely-accept myth is unclear. But we now know that the 21-day rule is wrong. Building new habits is difficult and time-consuming. W we fail more often than we succeed.    

Current estimates suggest that it takes about 66 days to build a new habit depending on the person and the habit acquired. In some instances, habit formation took as few as 18 days, or as many as 256 days, which is almost an entire year. 

These estimates were obtained from a painstaking study conducted in 2008 by a researcher from the UK named Dr. Phillippa Lally. She asked 96 volunteers to pick one of three activities and do them every day for up to 84 days and answer a few questions at the end of every day. She was interested in identifying the point at which a new behaviour, such as going for a walk, becomes automatic, which, for her, is the hallmark of a behaviour that has become a habit. 

Automaticity ratings for a new behaviour — walking for 10 minutes after breakfast are plotted in the figure below. The degree to which going for a walk felt automatic is plotted each day for 86 days. Results show that the automaticity rating is very low on the first five days (i.e., the score is below 20) but has increased to 40 by day 20 and has reached a maximum score of 50 by day 40. 

For this person, the new behaviour of going for a 10-minute walk after breakfast became automatic — a real habit — after 40 days. A bit quicker than the average number of 66 days. 

Can we form long-lasting habits? 

Research shows that we can build lasting habits. In fact, there is no shortage of habits. Wendy Wood, a research psychologist in the Department of Psychology at the University of Southern California, wanted to document how much of our behaviour is, in fact, habitual. She asked students to write down hour by hour what they did all day for a number of days.

This study showed that between 33% and 50% of what students did every day could be classified as “habit. ” These tended to be mundane behaviours related to things like schoolwork, entertainment, social interaction, or eating and drinking. Interestingly, not only were these behaviours things that they did almost every day but they were often done in exactly the same places. 

How often do we fail?

It is, perhaps, not surprising that many of our attempts to build new habits result in failure. A longitudinal study of some 200 people making New Year’s pledges found that 77% had quit after 1 week and only 19% lasted for 2 years.

However, this study almost 1 in 5 people we able to maintain their New Year’s resolution for two whole years. Interestingly, researchers leading this study discovered that experiencing a setback was not fatal. Indeed, some 53% of the small successful group experienced at least one slip and had on average of 14 slips over a 2-year period of time — but still managed to keep going

The take-home message from this study is that you shouldn’t give up at the first sign of a setback. Slips are very common and are only failures if you completely stop.  If you think of a slip as a failure then you will increase the chance of failing. 

Ready to get started?

Download the habit builder worksheet to get started on building a new habit. The work sheet will help you implement the key principles to building great habits that last.   

Key principles to building a healthy new habit.

1. Cue your behaviour. Tie your new behaviour to an existing cue or reminder (e.g., right after breakfast or before I watch television). The cue functions as a reminder to do the new habit. This process is known as ‘habit stacking.’

2. Be specific and concrete.  Pick a very concrete activity (e.g., do flashcards right after my first class) and specify the time and place where you will do the activity. The more explicit you are, the more likely you are to do it. 

3. Make it the priority. If you are having difficulty finding the time, energy and commitment for your new activity, do the activity in the morning before you get tired or too busy (e.g., go for a walk before work or school)

4. Work at it. Plan to work on your new habit for at least 66 days (if not more).  The research says that you need at least that many days for a habit to become automatic, which is the key characteristic that makes any behaviour a true habit. 

5. Track your progress. One of the most effective strategies for making any change is to track your progress. Print off the habit builder worksheet and mark the days that you do it (and the days that you don’t). Check marks on the days you do it will motivate you to keep going. An ‘x” on the days you don’t will remind you to try harder. Place the worksheet someplace visible (e.g., on your fridge, above your desk). 

6. Buddy up. One of the best ways to increase your motivation and accountability is to do it with a friend, classmate or colleague. 

7. Expect slips and setbacks, and be kind to yourself. The research data say that we are all going to miss a day (or two). Slips become failures only when you stop. So, if you miss a day, don’t be hard on yourself. Call it a ‘slip’ and treat the next day as a new start. 

Join a Habit Builder Event this year.

If you are looking for a bit more help on building a new routine, consider joining one of our Habit Builder events. In less than an hour, we’ll explain the science of habit building, show you the key principles in building a new habit and get you started. Will give you some tracking tools and some motivation to get you going.   

Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C.H.M., Potts, H.W.W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 9981009.
Maltz, Maxwell (1960). Psycho-Cybernetics. Simon & Schuster. 
Neal, D. T., Wood, W., & Quinn, J. M. (2006). Habits—A Repeat Performance. Current Directions in Psychological Science15(4), 198–202. 
Norcross, J. C., & Vangarelli, D. J. (1988). The resolution solution: Longitudinal examination of New Year’s change attempts. Journal of Substance Abuse, 1(2), 127–134. 
Wood, W., & Rünger, D. (2016). Psychology of Habit. Annual Review of Psychology, 67(1), 289–314.
Wood, W. (2019). Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


Looking for more updates? Click here.

Help spread the word. Please share this content with others:


Make sure you get the newest tips, strategies and questionnaires each week.  Follow us on Instagram or Facebook.  Join our monthly email list. Share us with others.


Thanks for stopping by.

Make sure you get the newest 
quizzes, strategies and articles
each week. 

Join us on Instagram
or Facebook. 
Share us with a friend. 

And, if you have already signed up, our thanks once again. 
Hope to see you soon!