How long does it take to form a good habit? No, it is not 21 days! by Suf Alkhaldi

How to develop a new habit
How to develop a new habit. Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

In my previous post, I wrote about forming the habit of reading.  In this post, I will be writing about some of my best habits developed during my lifetime. My good habits have gotten refined through the years due to experience and some wisdom.  Assuming the older you get, the wiser you will be, I developed the habit of thanking people, for example, which I did not do when I was a young kid. I developed the habit of sending short emails to all my friends and colleagues around Christmas time, wishing them a Happy Holiday and a Happy New Year. The benefit of this habit paid off after six years. One of these emails I sent was to a researcher at the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, Germany.  When I sent him a follow-up email including my recent research paper published and selected to be on the cover of a scientific magazine, the researcher responded quickly by sending an invitation to me to deliver my research at an international conference.  Frankly, I was thrilled to receive the invitation. After all, the conference was a big-deal international scientific conference. The lesson here is that good habits of networking eventually paid off .

Recently, a study on habit forming was explored more by Charles Duhigg in his book: The Power of Habit. In his book, he captured the technique and the tools to form new habits. Duhigg studied the science of forming habits when he was a journalist.  During one of his assignments, Duhigg heard about a habit modification program developed by an officer who studied and observed people’s behavior for years. The officer studied videotapes of people in the city where he was located. The officer noticed that every time there was a gathering of people in an open space, food vendors would show up and ultimately a riot would breakout.  The officer ask the city to prevent the food vendors from selling food.  A few weeks later, a small group of protesters gathered in the open space again. The crowd got bigger and bigger and the chanting of angry people became louder. The crowd started getting hungry. When the demonstrators looked around, they could not find any food – no food vendors.  The demonstrators then left the open places in the city, and the ones who stayed became discouraged, and by eight p.m. everyone was gone.  This story is an example of how people’s behavior can be studied and modified with some creative thinking.

Creating a new habit

Duhigg points out that a habit develops from a cue (a trigger), then a routine, and finally a reward. Then, you need to cultivate the craving that starts the loop. When I was a kid, I developed the habit of reading. The trigger (or the motivation from my end) was to attract attention.  I pursued reading and memorizing many books (this is the routine) because I wanted people to listen to me (this is the reward) although I was very young. As a result, I developed the reputation of being a very skillful debater so much so that my sister invited me to talk to her friends at the university (cultivating the craving). This recognition was my goal.  From that day and after, reading books was great fun for me.

How long does it take to form a habit?  The common answer is 21 days. This fact came from Dr. Maxwell Maltz (a plastic surgeon) who discovered that amputees took 21 days to overcome and adapt to the new reality.  As this might be true sometimes, new research points out that new habit formation takes 66 days to be engraved in our mind. Practicing this habit for that time makes it part of your routine.  I would recommend using a calendar, following Jerry Seinfeld’s habit-forming strategy.  Jerry bought a big wall calendar and marked it daily every time he practiced the habit . After several weeks, he formed a chain that got longer over time. Your main job is to not break the chain at least for 66 days – several apps are available now in smartphones as well.

On the other hand, if you want to break bad habits, you need to control the unwanted

Stop the bad habit
Stop the bad habit. Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

response when your memory activates the bad habit.  You need to monitor your behavior vigilantly and to increase self-awareness. These are the “Don’t do’s.” Self-awareness serves much better than decreasing the habit gradually.  Being vigilant of the bad habits enforces our willpower to stop these habits. We also need to replace the bad habit with something stronger and better to fill the space of not doing the bad habit.

I believe that forming good habits is crucial for success in life and now you need only to do it for 66 days using the Jerry Seinfeld method.

This blog is published every week on Saturday before 10:00 pm. US Eastern time. Thank you for reading my blog. I would love to hear from you.

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