It Takes 21 Days to Create a Habit — Behind The Scenes

Ndali Gregory-Ozegbe
4 min readSep 25, 2019

I’ll admit it. I missed two days of working out this month. It wasn’t my fault though, and before you roll your eyes, I made up for it by going out dancing or burning the calories in other creative ways. But let me start at the beginning and explain why I’m here stumbling over an awkward confession, and why for the first time it’s not accompanied by shame or self-loathing.

I’ve long suffered from a love hate relationship with exercise. I lack the basic coordination required for many sports, yet strangely also am riddled with the need to be the best at everything that I apply myself to. The resulting personality is that I would rather eat dirt than ‘play for fun’. Even when a selfless invitation is extended to play with people that are marginally talented and I am coaxed and cajoled with “we won’t mind if we lose” and “I’m sure you’re not that bad” I cringe at the thought my incompetence would ever be the reason for team failure.

But with age comes a slower metabolism and my energy levels are only going downhill from here. I read briefly in passing an article on the 21/ 90 rule some time ago during my ‘Rich Dad Poor Dad’ phase of literature. For anyone unfamiliar with the rule, the requirements are that one commits to a personal or professional goal for 21 straight days. At this point, the pursuit of that goal should have become a ‘habit’. Once you’ve established that habit, you continue to do it for another ninety days to set it in stone.

The end goal is a permanent lifestyle change and it’s based on scientific findings from the 50s. Maxwell Maltz (a plastic surgeon from back then) started noticing a strange pattern among his patients — when the good Dr. Maltz would perform an operation, ie. A nose job, it would take the patient about 21 days to get used to seeing their new face. Similarly, when a patient had an amputation performed, he noticed that the patient would sense a phantom limb for about 21 days before adjusting to the new situation.

He ran with this new concept and wrote a book inspiring generations of self-help gurus (who have conveniently forgotten to add the caveat of “about a minimum of”) to spread the good word of changing your lifestyle in a convenient three weeks. Does this sound like pseudo-science? A little. Did that stop me from trying? Absolutely not. I revisited my goal, which was to look good and feel good, and that hadn’t changed. At the very least I would exercise every day for three weeks. At the most — I’d become one of those people I envy that make it to the gym every day and find the practice as natural as breathing.

Today is day twenty-five. I made it to day twenty-three without a hitch, and then lost my mojo a bit because life caught up (I promise this isn’t an excuse). But I’m undeterred and will get back on track tomorrow. Because one thing this 21 day experiment taught me is patience. Instead of the usual drama of me telling myself I’ll run 5km three times a week then beat myself up about it later, I practiced moderation. I worked up over the three week period to a comfortable 3.5km daily. The maths speaks for itself. I was ‘doing less’ but burning more calories weekly overall and actually surpassing my previous movement targets. This led to me having a ‘healthier’ attitude to exercise.

So does it really take 21 days to form a habit? In her study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Phillippa Lally (a health psychology researcher at University College London) stated that it takes more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact. In all honesty, how long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances.

I’m still quite far away from exercising every day becoming an actual habit — but I will say the days I didn’t go, the gym was continuously on my mind. However, I couldn’t humanly be in two places at once so I made peace with it. Interestingly enough, in support of this, Lally and the other researchers also found that “missing one opportunity to perform the behavior did not materially affect the habit formation process.”

In other words, it doesn’t matter if you mess up every now and then when building a habit. Building better habits is about the destination not just the journey.