Wednesday, June 24, 2015

21 Days to Make or Break a Habit?

As you know, I've been doing 21 day fitness challenges lately, and they are working wonders for me.  I'm actually hosting my own one right now (with two of my best friends as my "challenge group"), and am really enjoying that!

But a lot of beachbody coaches say the reason we do 21 day challenges is that it takes 21 days to make or break a habit.  That's a pretty broad statement, and I found it hard to believe.  I wanted to learn: (1) Does it really take 21 days to make or break a habit?  And, especially if not, (2) What does it take to make or break a habit?  Whether it's work, play, family - we all want to build better habits.

So to give you an idea, my own coaches used these pics when recruiting for their challenge groups.  You have to admit, it is catchy.

But the idea that 21 days is enough to make or break a habit is hard for me to believe. And I am not one to accept a statement like that blindly. 

Being the nerd that I am, I had to read up (including psychology research).

Of everything I read, these two articles were really nice and concise, and helpful. They address the 21 day question, but they also give a nice outline of what you do need to do to build a new habit.  So, if you are trying to build any good new habits, I recommend these articles:

Here's how I would summarize it:
The bad news: If you want to develop a new habit, doing something for 21 days isn't quite enough.
The good news: You CAN develop new habits, and there's a clear process to do so. It may take longer than 21 days, but if you stick with it, you will do it!

So what does it take to develop a new habit?  My interpretation, after reading up, is that there are 3 key elements:
  1. Be clear about your motivation: why are you trying to establish this new habit?  How will you feel if you do it, vs. if you don't?  Where will you be in 5 years if you do it, vs. if you don't?
  2. Be willing to work hard.  You will have to work to build and maintain your habit every day.  There will be many times, especially early on (e.g. that catchy 21 days), but even later (vacation, super-busy periods, ...), when it feels hard.  If you're clear on (1), and remember that you have to fight through, you can maintain that habit. 
  3. Celebrate your success. You are making progress - celebrate that, and if possible have people around you who celebrate it for you too.  This will help you to stay on track, and stick with it.
By it's very definition, a habit will become easier to maintain as it becomes more established.  But there will always be temptations to go back to old ways.  I think these three core pieces are important regardless of what the habit is - whether it is being efficient and effective at work, maintaining a workout routine, eating healthy, or putting your phone away so you play actively with the kids in the evening.  Regardless of the habit you want to build and maintain, it's always important to keep these three in mind.  

And back to the beginning: When it comes to these 21 day fitness challenges - they do help with the habit formation process.  And doing multiple of them can help to keep you on track to truly establish new exercise and eating habits.  A good coach, who asks you to think about your motivation, posts information and reminders (and "rules" like never go more than 3 days without working out - even when you're on vacation!) to keep you working hard, and a group that is celebrating your progress with you, will help.  But in the end, a single 21 day fitness challenge probably isn't going to change your life.  It probably is going to improve your fitness from what it was 21 days earlier.  :) 


  1. I think I am learning a good way to approach food and exercise. And finding time to work out has become really easy for me... so that is one habit I think I will have formed!