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21 days from today

A few years ago, I embarked on a mission that was very narrow in scope. I intended to get into the habit of making my bed on a daily basis. It was not something that came easily. I went against my “chaotic good” principles, but I had it on good authority (from people I believed to be more organized than I) that the routine could make a significant difference in my life, 21 days from today.

They told me that if I swept my messy desk and chaotic social calendar each morning with the commanding sweep of a comforter, I could potentially bring order to both of those areas. They guaranteed me that it would have an effect on each and every facet of my life. 
When I was in high school, one of my coaches informed me that it takes 21 days from today to create a habit. I just recalled this information. Therefore, I reasoned that if I unwillingly rearranged my decorative pillows for the next 21 days in a row, ultimately the solution would just occur to me without any effort. Perhaps you could even find some enjoyment in it.

But after forcing myself to untangle my sheets at 7 a.m. for 21 long days, even on days when I was running late, I discovered that I disliked this chore more than I ever had before. On day 22, I still detested having to make the crisp folds, so I gave up and did something else instead. I assumed that no matter what I did in life, I would always be a step or two behind those who made beds. Whatever.
But as it turns out, I had an entirely incorrect strategy for approaching it. There is no truth to the 21 days from today rule. Or, to be more precise, it is an incorrect interpretation of something that the cosmetic surgeon Maxwell Maltz said in his widely read book on behaviour, which is titled Psycho-Cybernetics.

When Dr. Maltz performed surgery on a patient, whether it was a rhinoplasty or the amputation of a leg, he noted that it took the patient 21 days to acclimatise to the change in their body following the procedure. In light of this, he concluded in his book that “an outdated mental image needs a minimum of roughly 21 days from today to disintegrate.” According to the author of Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones, James Clear, as this notion began to spread, individuals began to leave out the “minimum of” component.

But those two words have a certain degree of significance. Without them, the concept that it takes exactly 21 days to create a habit became a widely reported and generally repeated fact. Yet, in truth, the concept as a whole is based on the opinion of a single plastic surgeon.

The “21-day rule” has been thoroughly debunked by recent research. A study that was conducted and released by Phillippa Lally, PhD, a senior researcher at University College London, discovered that it takes an actual average of 66 days, which is more than two months, to create a habit. Lally also discovered that the period of time before a new habit feels automatic might range between 18 and 254 days.

“We don’t really know what forecasts the variation in time,” Lally explains. But she does have a hunch: “It’s likely easier to think that [a habit] feels automatic when it’s a simpler behaviour,” Lally says. “It’s likely easier to consider that [a habit] feels automatic when it’s a simpler activity.” You may feel as though you are able to adopt the former into your routine more quickly than the latter, since drinking a glass of water first thing in the morning involves less effort than, for example, beginning an exercise practise on a consistent basis.
In response to this information, I have a range of emotions. For some reason, the 21 days from today rule gave me a sense of calm and confidence that I could handle anything that came my way. In a period of less than a month, I could do practically anything.

On the other hand, the fact that it has been disproved is a source of empowerment. This indicates that the only way to develop a new pattern is not to engage in mindless repetition for a period of three weeks in a row. You won’t have to worry about beating yourself up over missing a day, as I did when I was attempting to teach myself to make my bed on a daily basis. (Lally’s study showed that the number 21 is wrong, and it also found that skipping a day during a streak did not slow down the process of forming a habit.)

I can also stop feeling like a failure for finally giving up smoking altogether. I can do this. According to an article that can be found on Clear’s website, “There’s no reason to be down on yourself if you attempt something for a few weeks and it doesn’t become a habit.” “It’s not intended to take that little bit of time!”

But if the “21 days from today” doesn’t truly work, what is the best way to kick a habit or start a new one? According to Lally, there are strategies supported by science that are effective.

According to Lally, one of the ways to increase the likelihood of success is to only create habits that you actually want to include in your life. After that, you should create reminders for yourself that will prompt you to finish them. Use the fact that you probably already brush your teeth every day as a reminder to floss by putting your spool of floss right next to your tube of toothpaste. This will ensure that you never forget to floss your teeth.

The goal is to focus on (1) not forgetting to perform the habit and (2) maintaining one’s drive to perform the habit. It is quite likely that it will get less difficult to repeat the pattern as time passes; you probably won’t struggle each day right up to day 66, when all of a sudden the routine will “click” for you.

To find out what occurs on day 255. I may redo the process of making my bed and observe the results. Or perhaps I’ll take Lally up on her suggestion and concentrate my efforts on developing. A routine that doesn’t seem like a chore (like writing in my thankfulness notebook every morning), and I’ll let the early risers deal with the Made-Bed Energy.

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