Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer based out of Victoria, BC. In feeding his passion for swimming, he has developed YourSwimBook, a powerful log book and goal setting guide made specifically for swimmers. Sign up for the YourSwimBook newsletter (free) and get weekly motivational tips by clicking here.
You’ve made the decision—this is going to be the year that you improve your workout habits. Whether it is making every early morning workout, or showing up on time, or breathing every two strokes on those butterfly sets, you are set on getting it done this year.
But before you go flying down this awesome new path, you are surely wondering to yourself, how long will it take to install my shiny new habit?
The answer will vary with each athlete, what type of habit we are talking about (drinking a glass of water in the morning vs. getting up at 4:30am every day), and what type of strategies you put into place to achieve your new habit.
Yeah, yeah, I can hear you thinking. But ballpark it for me, how long will it take for my new habit to become completely habitual?
A 2010 study done published in the European Journal of Psychology sought out to answer this very question. If you search Google for the answer to this question you will get a variation on the answer of approximately 21 days. This original answer was attributed to Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon who in the 1950’s noted that after surgery it would take a minimum of three weeks for patients to adjust to the new mental image of themselves post-surgery.
This was published in his wildly successful book Psycho-Cybernetics in 1960, and the 21-day habit myth was perpetuated by self-help gurus along the line (including Tony Robbins, Jim Rohn, and so on), permeating itself through the culture.
This one-size-fits-all number was applied to everything, from how long it takes to quit smoking, to picking up a new fitness regimen, to eating better. There was one big problem with this figure – that it was incorrect. Where Maltz established that it took a minimum of 3 weeks for a new habit to take root, the culture changed it to a flat 21-day time-frame.
It makes sense that three-week benchmark would appear so appealing and sensible. Reading it, you can’t help but think that it is intuitively correct.
It is long enough that it looks like enough enough time to develop a powerful and life-lasting habit. After all, you have picked up (bad) habits in much less time! But perhaps more tellingly it is a short enough amount of time that it the time-frame isn’t completely daunting or demoralizing.
So how long does it actually take then if that number of 21 days is simply a baseline?
The 2010 study monitored just under a hundred people over a 3 month period. Each participant were asked to choose a habit they wanted to stick with – ranging from drinking more water after breakfast to eating fruit at lunch to jogging before dinner – and were tasked with self-reporting each day on whether or not they stuck to it.
The answer, as it it turned out, was different as each habit was unique, with some picking up their new habit in as little as 18 days, while for others it took as long 8 months. Bunched all together, the average amount of time it took for the participants to develop a new habit was a shade over two months, at 66 days.
The authors of the study noted that the more difficult the new habit the longer it took for it to become automatic. To add an extra glass of water after breakfast took about 3 weeks to achieve maximum second-naturedness, while the exercise habits, perhaps most predictably, took longest to fully implement.
However, and perhaps most encouragingly, the gains in automaticity are most pronounced in the first couple weeks, with the gains eventually leveling off. In other words, the first few weeks are the hardest, and will produce the biggest gains. It is sort of like the beginning of the season, where you improve leaps and bounds as your conditioning vastly and quickly improves, and then towards the back end of the season, the closer you get to the big meet, the more fine tuned you are, the finer the improvements.
For you all-or-nothing athletes out there, there is more good news: It’s okay to screw up. Dropping the ball on occasion didn’t seem to have an overall impact on habit formation.
We all have those days where we aren’t motivated, where we are crushed with fatigue and stress and work and life and all of the millions of things that are going on. These are the days that often make or break our habits, and not in the way that you might think.
Missing a day – as long as you got back on right away – wasn’t a deciding factor. In other words, it is okay to screw up as long you jump back on track quickly. Where people inevitably get into trouble is believing that they are back to square one when they miss a day.
(It’s that sensation of feeling the chain is broken – because you don’t have a perfect run of days it is all for naught.)
Remember that habit formation is a process, not an event.
View your new habits as something you are progressively working on, not something you do once and then is done forever. The more consistent you are, the longer you apply yourself, the easier and more automatic the new habit will become until that day – which you might not even notice – that it becomes quite literally second nature.
YourSwimBook is a log book and goal setting guide designed specifically for competitive swimmers. It includes a ten month log book, comprehensive goal setting section, monthly evaluations to be filled out with your coach, and more.
NEW: It now also comes with a 76-page mental training skills eBook called “Dominate the Pool.” It is free with your purchase of YourSwimBook and is emailed to you within 24 hours of your order.