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Creating sustainable habits (& how long it really takes them to stick)

Whether it’s New Year’s Eve, as you blow out the birthday candles or just Monday morning, making resolutions to change our habits is something that we seem to do a LOT of.

Perhaps you decide on Monday that you want to adopt a plant-based diet. You feel good for that day, choosing a tofu stir-fry for lunch and digging into a fruit salad in the afternoon.

By Friday, however, you're out with colleagues when they suggest the new burger place across the road from the office. "I deserve it," you tell yourself. "I've gone a whole week without meat!"

And so you "break" your resolution just a few days in. Chances are you'll give up entirely at this point, as getting the motivation to start again can be tricky when temptation is so close at hand.

21: A not-so-magic number

You might not have hear of Dr Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon from the 1950s, but you've probably heard a version of his hypothesis that adjusting to new behaviour or conditions is a process that takes at least 21 days.

In a game of Chinese Whispers that's lasted over half a century, this theory has been misquoted and misinterpreted many times, as James Clear highlights in his blog:

People began to forget that [Maltz] said "a minimum of about 21 days" and shortened it to, "It takes 21 days to form a new habit.
- James Clear

The real science of forming habits

Phillippa Lally, researcher at University College London, carried out the study "How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world" in order to find out how long it really takes to get a new habit to stick.

Lally looked at the experiences of 96 volunteers, each of whom "chose an eating, drinking or activity behaviour to carry out daily in the same context (for example 'after breakfast') for 12 weeks."

The results were interesting, to say the least:

The time it took participants to reach 95% of their asymptote of automaticity ranged from 18 to 254 days; indicating considerable variation in how long it takes people to reach their limit of automaticity and highlighting that it can take a very long time.
- Philippa Lally

In addition to this finding that there was little to no truth in the "21 days" rumour, the research team noticed, "Missing one opportunity to perform the behaviour did not materially affect the habit formation process."

Basically, it doesn't really matter if you don't stick to your goal 100% of the time. It's okay to try and try again because it's the commitment to making a real change long-term that will ultimately reshape your behaviour.

Start a new habit today for you + the planet

Living a low-carbon life is more than just fad or a fashion: it's a profound adjustment to how you live your life and how you make decisions regarding what you eat, what you buy and how you use energy.

The 1 Million Women Low-Carbon Life activity tool is made for the real world. Pick an activity and give it a go, then check in later and estimate your commitment to changing your habits.

Doing the challenge with friends is another way to stay motivated, as you can keep each other going when it gets tough!

Which habit will YOU start developing today?

Perhaps you'll start a Plastic Free life?

Adopt a plant-based diet?

Start a spring cleaning tradition?

We're building a movement of women fighting climate change through the way we live.

Join us and be counted.


Steph Newman Former Social Media Assistant Suggest an article Send us an email

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