You’ve read it online:
All it takes is 21 DAYS to establish a new habit!”
As long as you can do this EVERY DAY for 3 weeks, you’re home free!”
So is it true?
Are you just 3 weeks away from the life of your dreams?
James Clear investigated the claim and found out that—sadly—it was just hype.
The “21 days” figure came from a popular 1960s book by a plastic surgeon musing on his personal experience. Not exactly generalizable to the public at large.
A more recent study on 96 volunteers found that it took 18 to 254 days to establish a new habit. 
Proving, if anything, that we’re all unique individuals … and habits are a lot more complicated than we think.
But the notion has captivated our collective imagination:
If we can only do this one thing every single day for a certain amount of time…
Then at some point it will become automatic. We’ll never have to think about it again.
Have YOU ever tried doing that?
Forced yourself through brute repetition to exercise or stop smoking or eat healthy?
What did you learn from the experience?
If you’re lucky, it taught you that you have enormous reserves of willpower.
If you’re like most of us, it taught you that you can’t even stick to something for a week, let alone three.
But you didn’t fail; the technique failed you.
Habits are about a LOT more than repetition.
And it takes a LOT more than sticking to something for 3 weeks to integrate it permanently into the fabric of your life.
That’s where Gretchen Rubin comes in.
She wants to help you break bad habits and make healthier ones.
Rubin is the author of The Happiness Project. While investigating happiness, she realized how much our habits affect the way we feel about our lives. So, in her next book, Better Than Before, she dived into the how of habits.
And what she found is that the details matter more than you’d think.
Rubin defines a habit as:
A behavior that’s recurrent, is cued by a specific context, often happens without much awareness or conscious intent, and is acquired through frequent repetition.”
So, yes, repetition plays a big role.
But it’s the context that embeds a habit permanently into your consciousness.
Habits Occur in Context
Habits aren’t hard to make.
About 45% of what you do during the day is a repeat of what you did yesterday when you were in the same place.
That’s a piece of habit puzzle that most folks miss.
Habits are most powerfully formed in context.
In other words, you associate a certain action with a certain place, or time of day, or certain people.
Ever went to the restroom to freshen up … and realized you had to use the toilet? That’s because restrooms are a trigger.
Ever drove past Starbucks … and realized you were dying for a coffee? That green sign was a trigger.
Ever looked at the clock, saw that it was noon, and suddenly felt hungry? The time of day was a trigger.
If you want to break an unwanted habit, you’ve got to tackle those triggers first.
Maybe you always stop for fast food when you’re driving home after a late night at work. Instead of relying on willpower to keep your eyes on the road, maybe you could drive a different way home—one that passes fewer or healthier food options.
Addicts can find themselves having to cut ties with the people with whom they drank or smoke or used drugs, as well as the places they associated with those activities. Their triggers are more powerful than their willpower.
On the other hand, you can form positive habits by deliberately associating a certain activity with a trigger.
“Every time I brush my teeth, I’ll floss.”
“The instant I wake up, I’ll drink a glass of water.”
“When I have breakfast, I’ll take my vitamins.”
Rubin calls this the “Strategy of Pairing.”
The Best Habit-Formers
Who do you think would be best at forming habits?
Athletes? CEOs? High performers in every field?
That’s because marketers aren’t just forming their own habits. They’re implanting habits in the general public.
And they’re very, very good at it.
Marketers use the principles of habits to make us think of their brand or product every time we do something specific.
For example, does taking a coffee break make you think it’s time for a KitKat bar? Nestlé hopes you do.
By using the power of repetition to implant a catchy slogan in your mind and pairing their product or brand with something you do every day…
They maximize the chances you’ll think about them when it’s time to pull out your wallet.
Given that marketers are so good at programming us with consumer habits, surely we can take a leaf from their book.
If there’s a habit you want to establish, or one you want to break, think of the context in which that behavior occurs.
What are the cues that trigger you to engage in an unwanted behavior? How you could avoid exposure to those cues or change your response to them?
What cues could you associate with a desired habit? How could you embed that association through repetition?
I’m no master of habits, but those principles make a lot of sense to me. I’ve always found it easier to snack on healthy foods when there was a big bowl of fruit on the table or a large plastic bag of cut-up vegetables in the front of the fridge. And it’s a lot easier to save money when I’m at home rather than walking downtown window-shopping.
If you want to change your habits, change your cues.
As Rubin says, “It’s easier to change our surroundings than ourselves.”
 Gretchen Rubin, Better than Before (New York: Broadway Books, 2015).