30 Days to Change a Habit? Myths and Theories

Does it really take 30 days to change a habit? This is the theory offered by a character, for example, at the beginning of Fruitvale Station, a 2013 film based on the true story of 22-year-old Oscar Grant III, whose fatal and wrongful shooting by a subway officer sparked much outrage over a decade ago.

Oprah was supposedly the purveyor of this theory. Did Oprah really once say it takes 30 days to change a habit? Although I have no reason to doubt it, I don’t know the answer.

What do others say on this subject? First, the idea of 21 or 28 days actually seems more popular than 30. Second, as I’d strongly suspected before reading up, proof that habit change happens in any certain amount of time is lacking. Isn’t it common sense, actually, that some other important factors may also have to be involved?

Columnist Oliver Burkeman has reported on a study that debunked the myth that habit change occurs in X number of days. The amount of time it really took varied widely from person to person, habit to habit. In fact, the average was 66 days, meaning some took a lot less, some a lot more (“This Column Will Change Your Life“).

Despite such evidence, “Self-help culture clings to the fiction of the 28-day rule, presumably, because it makes habit change sound plausibly difficult enough, but basically easy,” states Burkeman. He cites two basic problems with this folklore:

  1. Simply put, changing habits is hard.
  2. What we want to change is something we also want to keep doing—“so what we really want, it seems, is to stop wanting.”

So, can a habit change in 30 days? Maybe, maybe not. Try it—or anything new you want to try in life— anyway. There are rewards, says Matt Cutts in this brief TED presentation:

Cutts: “The next 30 days are going to pass whether you like it or not, so why not think about something you have always wanted to try and give it a shot for the next 30 days?”

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