21 Days to Habit Change

Dec 9, 2020

Have you ever heard that it takes 21 days to make a commitment to a healthy habit change? Well I hate to break it to you, but the title is a bit misleading because this widely spread belief is actually a myth.

In fact, it takes on average 66 days to make a habit change successfully. Depending on your internal and external faculties around the desired habit, this can actually take between 18-254 days for full commitment, with exercise habits taking 150% longer than eating habits (1).

However, with a little background knowledge, your healthy lifestyle achievements can be a bit easier to adopt and it all starts with your brain. That’s right, your brain, which can be broken down into two parts: your fast brain and slow brain.

The fast brain

This is where the majority of us act. It is the instinctive survival side of your brain, or like as I like to call it, the primitive or caveman brain, ie. “me hungry, eat chocolate.”

Very early in in life, say when you were a toddler or child, your fast brain had to develop out of congruency to your environment and sheer survival. Modes associated with the fast brain might include:

  • Autopiloting: wake up, get kids up and ready, breakfast, work and school, pickup kids, home, dinner, showers, bed and repeat. Many of us can relate to this.
  • Directing: it is typically evolved and efficient for our daily responsibilities and obligations as the dominant side of the brain and is normally running the show.
  • Mindless or unconsciousness: typically, the fast brain is not connected to mindful behavior.
  • Shortcuts: denotes a lack of connection of behavior to values or basic human needs so the fast brain may encourage shortcuts to the outcome.

I like to think of the fast brain as a big factory machine that just gets the input, does what it is designed or told to do efficiently and as quickly as possible, and like magic, produces the expected outcome. 

The slow brain

Conversely, this is where we rarely find ourselves operating from. As I compare it to the machine, the slow brain is the wrench that you might throw into the fast brain machine in order to shake things up or cause a shift in the production and outcome process. This part of the brain is less evolved as it it is less utilized or more specifically, used about five percent of the time. Modes associated with the slow brain include:

  • Willpower, decision making, problem solving and planning ahead.
  • Most connected to our desires,  motivators, values, and other key ingredients needed for positive behavior change.

When the slow brain is actively working for you in a healthy manner, it is intentional, reflective, in tune and conscious. As a result, in order to throw a wrench into your own fast brain mode, you need to know WHY you want your desired future outcomes. This connects to the brain's "reward center" and "inaccurate thoughts" that play a role in making habit change successful long term.

Want to change a bad habit? Start with this question. How can you trigger more slow brain activity in your life so that you can pause, recall and align with your WHY? 

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1. Lally et al. (2010). How habits are formed. European Journal of Social Psychology. 40. 998-1009.

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