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21 Days to Break a Habit?

A new you in 21 Days? Not so fast….

Most of us have heard the claim that it takes

21 days to break a habit and/or create a new,

healthier habit.

No one is entirely sure where the 21-day rule originates,

but it seems to have first been set forth in a book called

Psycho-Cybernetics,” a self-help book first published

in the 1970s which claims you can create or break a

habit in just 21 days.

Since then, it has been picked up by countless

pop psychology gurus.

In the online “Self Improvement Mentor,” they claim that

“complete abstinence of a habit for 21 to 30 days will be

enough to break it….you don’t have to worry about

having to continuously struggle to not indulge in a

habit for the rest of your life. After 21 to 30 days, you

would have surpassed the required threshold.”

In the book, “The Secret,” the writers refer to a

variation of the habit rule that says it takes 30 days:

“Changing the habit will take 30 days, re-affirming it

further for another 30 days will definitely fix it and you’ll

have no problem to continue from there on.”

Wow, really?

Changing a habit is never that simple.

If it were, overeaters would all be thin, alcoholics would 

never relapse, and everyone would be up early enough to 

eat a healthy breakfast before work.

The problem is, the evidence supporting the theory of

“21 days to a new you” is empirical, or based on experience, not clinical, or based on controlled experiments.

So How DOES it Work?

When you engage in a behavior for the first time, you create a neural pathway. You also create connections in the brain that link the circumstances surrounding that behavior to the behavior itself. For example, if you grab a donut when you are stressed, you create a neural pathway that links stress with a high carb, high fat treat. If you repeat that pattern often enough, those synaptic pathways get worn in.

That’s why breaking a habit is a lot more complicated than creating a new habit. Because while parts of those worn-in pathways can weaken without use, they never go away.

They can be reactivated with the slightest provocation.

If you’ve ever tried to stop overeating, you already know this. You can go a year without bingeing, and then give in one time and BAM, the habit comes right back.

It is also why 12-step programs emphasize that an 

addict is always in recovery, even when not actively engaged

in addictive behaviors. The neural pathways don’t disappear.

So, Atara… Any good news? 

(There is always good news!)

Good News 1:

Habits are easier to make than break. A powerful approach to 

change is to create a new, parallel pattern to push aside 

the old pattern. For example, try exercising when you feel 

stressed, rather than indulging in the old pattern, which triggers “cigarette” or “overeating” in response to stress.

Good News 2:

Now that you understand the process of change, you can be more compassionate with yourself when you hit bumps in the road. Compassion increases resilience and resilience drives positive momentum. No more beating yourself up or calling yourself weak or a failure when you struggle with breaking a habit. Remind yourself that change is challenging for your brain and recommit to trying again.

Good News 3:

Increase your chances of success by understanding the 

Behavior Chain, the series of events that happens before and 

after a specific habit.

Trigger – this is the initiating event that sets the chain in motion. It could be something like feeling stressed after

a long day. 

Thought – this can be a disempowering thought that triggers the behavior like, “I had a long day, I deserve a treat.”

Behavior – this is the action you take, either the old habit (treating yourself) or the new action (taking a walk). 

Consequence – this has the power to reinforce or undermine

a behavior, depending on what action was taken. 






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