top of page

Do Habits Really Take 21 Days To Form?

Updated: Oct 29, 2022

According to PhD BJ FOGG's research, the short answer to this is NO !

In BJ FOGG's book Tiny Habits, the small changes that change everything, he explains the psychology of why "people change best when they feel good, not by feeling bad". Based on these positive emotions, new habits can actually form quite quickly if the right behavioural design is applied. The recipe (B=MAP), shows that all human behaviour is a result of Motivation, Ability, and a Prompt converging at the same time to put you into action.

An illustration of how a habit could form almost instantly, not in X number of days, would be giving a teenager a new cell phone or video game. Both of these examples are something they want to do (Motivation is high), is easy form them to do (Ability, or capacity to do it is high), and is readily available in their environment (Prompt). These factors contribute to the perfect storm for repeating a behaviour because it results in a strong positive connection to the behaviour. And because there is a direct connection between feeling good when you do a behaviour and the likely hood that you will repeat that behaviour again, with the right formula, a habit can form very quickly! Although this example showcases a scenario with high motivation, this formula then allows us to unpack and understand the main drivers of our behaviours/ habits. The key is how do we then apply the B=MAP template to behaviours we are less motivated to do such as exercise, meal prep, nightly stretching routine, meditation etc.?

fit women in 30's doing a hamstring stretch on floor

Obviously the book Tiny Habits provides a thorough and structured answer to this. However I'd recommend reading it for shedding light on how others around you operate. BJ's findings also gives insight to help improve family relationships, improve workplace dynamics, and better manage raising children.

In the meantime, I hope the following bullet points can help you kickstart a new habit!

  • In a nutshell, the essence of Tiny habits is this, “take a behaviour you want, make it tiny, find where it fits in naturally to your life, and nurture its growth."- BJ Fogg

  • People change for 3 main reasons; an epiphany, a change of environment, or small changes over time. You can't plan an epiphany so you should focus on the later 2.

  • The components of B=MAP, think of them as volume dials on a stereo you can turn up or down. If the motivation dial is low, the ability dial needs to be cranked up!

  • The most reliable way to drive behaviour is by playing with the ABILITY dial, make it simple, make it easy, and make it as enjoyable as possible. (learning new skills or having support form others like a coach can also increase your ability).

  • The biggest mistake most people make is focussing too much on the motivation dial (think January 1). Because motivation is fleeting, its unreliable. One of the biggest reasons people fail to reach their goals is that they set the bar way too high when motivation is at a temporary high point. Motivation is constantly changing, and we can all relate to how motivation it is entirely different when we are tired vs rested, on Monday morning vs Friday afternoon, or when in social situations like holidays. The point is, don't make a plan assuming motivation is constant.

  • We also have competing motivations, for example "I want a six pack, but I also want to eat pizza and drink beer". This is even more reason not to put all of your eggs in the motivation basket. #ability

  • No goal is ever achieved without temporary set backs or bumps on the road. This is completely normal. However the following growth mindset strategies will help you course correct the path; 1) Stop judging yourself, 2) Break your aspirations into tiny behaviours, 3) Embrace mistakes as discoveries and use them to move forward.

  • If you are struggling with a new habit, ask yourself "what about this makes it hard"? This leads to the 5 factors of the ability chain. Which are; money, time, physical effort, mental effort, does it fit in with your routine. This allows you to zero in on the right problem instead of self blaming (remember: stop judging yourself). If this still doesn't work, choose a new behaviour and/or scale it back to make it even tinnier.

  • Basically, the lower your motivation is, the easier, more simple and enjoyable the task needs to be (ability).

  • In regards to the prompt dial. Add your new habit to to something you are naturally already doing in your day vs drastically changing your routine. B.J Fogg started with, "after I go to the bathroom to pee, I will do 2 push-ups".

  • Decisions and habits are polar opposites. Just like brushing your teeth, hopefully you don't even think about it, you just do it.

  • To eventually make your new habit automatic, it is key to zero in on an environmental cue or prompt and make it as specific as possible. A few examples of how I am adding new habits to things I am already doing in my routine are: "after I hang Guadalupes dog leash up from our evening walk, I will do 10 minutes of stretching/soft tissue work.", "after my head hits the pillow at night, I will list 5 things I'm grateful for that day", and "after I have my first sip of coffee in the morning, I will review/ memorize the guitar fret board for 2 minutes".

  • Giving yourself credit or celebrating immediately after you complete your new habit is also important! When you celebrate effectively, you tap into the brains reward circuitry (dopamine) at the right moment which then encodes the new behaviour. Essentially the positive experience is what reinforces habits (remember, people change best by feeling good, not bad). So how do you actually celebrate? Well just think of your normal reaction when your favourite team scores or you get A on an exam. Do that as soon as you complete your behaviour!

  • Start now by making a list of 30 second behaviours you could do right now.

So in a nutshell: People change best when they feel good, not by feeling bad. So start with something you want to do first, make it easy (under 30 seconds), and add it to something you are already doing. Celebrate every time you complete your tiny behaviour and watch it grow or multiply.

If you're looking improve your health and fitness with this style of coaching please reach out to book a free consultation. We will work together to create a Tiny Habits plan that is personalized to your goals at a pace that works best for you! I specialize in "helping busy professionals get fit without burning out". My personal training studio services downtown Toronto and is just steps away from the UP Train at Union Station.


bottom of page