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Is the 21-Day Rule Not Working as Promised for Your Resolutions?

Understand and apply the 21-day rule for habit building properly. It works, but with a crucial step.


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Prajakta Kharkar Nigam

3 years ago | 4 min read

The rule works, but you are missing a crucial step

Right around the third week of January, you are supposed to see the magic of the 21-day rule of building habits. Many of you who made new year resolutions and sincerely kept to them may have started noticing that your new year resolution still doesn’t feel like a habit.

Your morale is beginning to dip, and the high spirit of the new year is slowly fading away. Unlike the promise of the 21-day rule, your new rituals feel anything but automatic. It is still taking considerable effort to get out of bed and hit the trails in the morning.

Self-doubt is creeping in. You are starting to think that perhaps, you were too ambitious in setting your resolutions. Maybe, you set the bar too high. Perhaps, you put too many on the list. Perhaps, the 21-day rule is not for you. Does this sound like you?

There is no need to worry. Feeling this way is very common and easy to fix. And no, you are not the only one facing it. Almost everyone who makes new year resolutions comes to this point, sooner or later.

Understand the 21-day rule properly

Many of you have come to this point because of the widely held, incorrect interpretation of the 21-day habit-building rule. According to this rule, we must take the same action for twenty-one days straight, without a break, to build a new habit. So if you are trying to develop a journaling habit, you must journal daily for twenty-one consecutive days before the activity feels natural and effortless.

In the book Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick, British psychologist Jeremy Dean calls this notion of acting without thinking automaticity’. It means the action becomes subconscious, and you no longer have to fight a mental battle to do it. In simpler words, a habit has formed.

This rule works. How do I know? Because I used it last year to build a daily running habit from scratch. The reasoning is simple. Every cell has a mind and a memory of its own.

If we are to develop a habit and make it stick, we must program our memory at both the cellular and overall levels. Such programming takes at least twenty-one days on average.

The least known thing about this habit-building rule

I came across something surprising when I went to the bottom of the study in Dean’s book. The least publicized thing about this rule is that in 21 days, most participants could only build simple habits such as drinking a glass of water before lunch.

However, for more difficult habits such as exercising daily or writing a daily blog post, it took the study participants an average of 66 days — Sixty-six, not twenty-one.

That is more than three times longer. Moreover, the key phrase here is “on average.” So, there were a few participants who took even longer than sixty-six days.

What can you do to achieve your resolution?

Despite following a ritual strictly since the start of the new year, if it does not feel like you have formed a habit yet, it is not your fault. It can be a positive indication.

You have set yourself a target, far more valuable in the long run than something you could have achieved in 21 days. The habit you are building is a serious one that takes longer.

1. Break it down

One way to achieve your new year resolution is to break it down into two or three simpler milestones. For example, the first milestone for a daily running resolution could be to dress up in your running gear every morning for the first 21 days, whether or not you run.

Once this feels like a habit, your second milestone for the next 21 days, could be to dress up and walk a hundred meters around your block. The third milestone could be to start running.

Once your straight-forward habits are in place, the running would happen more naturally. What will you do outside your doorstep, dressed in your running gear, anyway?

2. Strikeout resolutions, write intentions

Another approach, which, in my opinion, is a far more effective approach to personal growth in the new year, is to do away with some of the resolutions altogether. Without any guilt, strike out some of your resolutions and replace them with intentions, instead.

In an article, I explained how intentions work better than resolutions. Don’t be surprised if you find that a single intention is enough to replace several resolutions or rituals you may have put on your list.

I am giving this alternative method a shot; you should too. Without any guilt, forget some of your resolutions and replace them with intentions instead.

To Conclude

A partially understood concept such as the 21-day rule sounds excellent in the beginning because of its easy promise. Still, it may become the very reason why you quit your efforts towards a worthy goal when you were making decent progress. Just because that easy promise fell through, don’t let that happen.

It is easy to set new year resolutions and even easier to fall into the trap of believing that achieving those is simple. But remember, nothing worthwhile is easy to achieve.

Originally published on The Masterpiece, here.

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Prajakta Kharkar Nigam

An economist turned writer, Prajakta looks at life as a series of experiments and observes it through the unique lens of being the mother of two young girls. She loves traveling, coaching, and exploring how our intel and consciousness work. Based in Whistler, she is writing a book about unschooling.


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