I’m sure you’ve seen the different estimates of how long it takes to form a habit – 21 days, 66 days, etc. but today I’m going to challenge your belief in this notion and ask you to keep an open mind.

Because I’m going to let you in on a lesser known secret about habits and behavior change in general… if the initial behavior is set up properly to initiate behavior change, a new habit can be formed instantly, the first time the behavior has been done.


Mind blown?

Well hang on because I’m going to blow your mind some more with this realization. And afterward you’ll see that behavior change (aka habit forming) doesn’t have to be as complex and as hard as traditional research has made it out to be.


Exhibit numero uno for immediate habit formation: (dramatic dun, dun, dun!!!) the smart phone.

I’d be willing to bet the first time you got a cell phone, nearly everything about it became an instant habit.

  • You remembered to take it everywhere (and now you can’t imagine life without a phone)
  • Within the first hour you were incessantly checking it for notifications (now we just want them to stop!)
  • The time you were going to charge it was decided that first time you plugged it in (I’m a night time charger myself)

And if you don’t remember when you first got your cell phone, think of when you saw your child or your niece or nephew get their first phone, ipad, or gaming device. Principles remain the same – some technologies have MASTERED the art of behavior change, and specifically habit formation (although with tech, some might call it addictions).

Exhibit two: coming home after moving to a different place.

Whether you’ve moved to a different place in the same general city/area or whether you’ve moved across country, after the first time driving home from the store/work/wherever, you’ve instantly created a habit.

Unless you’re seriously distracted (and likely end up lost since it’s a new place), your brain stores that away for every future trip home and it’s not until you deliberately choose to take a different route home that you don’t take that initial way home.

And a last, but quick exhibit three: driving.

After my first time behind the wheel (which was a little nerve racking), it became like “riding a bike” and I didn’t have to nervously start the engine and mentally walk myself through each step. I had it down (albeit with a few things yet to learn).

Why it Works

These instant habits are possible because of a few factors.

First, let’s remember what habits are – they’re like mental shortcuts on loop so our brain doesn’t have to spend so much energy dictating every single choice and action throughout the day. Research says we spend as much as 40-95% of our days on autopilot, going through our habit motions.

So it’s beneficial for our brains to initiate habits as soon as possible to conserve energy. No disrespect to the researchers who came up with the 21 day or 66 day theory, but our brains didn’t evolve with an arbitrary number of days in mind to form new habits. If it works, it sticks!

Which brings me to the next point of why these work – they’re SUPER easy. Technology was built to be user friendly (good tech, anyways) so the easier it is to use, the more we’ll use it, and theoretically, the more money tech companies make. 

As for getting home, if the brain can store away that route as a subconscious habit, then it can do other things besides navigate… things like think about what you’re going to have for dinner or how far you’re going to run when you get home.

And driving a car (and a new phone) give perfect reason to the third factor of why these things work instantly to form new habits – reward/gratification part of the habit loop (remember from last week there’s the cue, the habit itself, and the reward). 

When the reward aspect of the habit is gratifying enough, it fast tracks the habit forming/behavior change process.

It feels good to be independent and drive a car! It feels so “adult” to have a cell phone and be able to call and text. 

Majority of the time the gratification is an emotional feeling rather than physical feeling, but if the reward is sufficient enough, it causes the instant implementation of a new habit. 

So next time you’re looking to start a new habit, you don’t have to wait 21 days or 66 days, you can start instantly, provided it has the right variables to it. First, make it EASY!!! And then, if the reward doesn’t match the behavior (ex. A pat on the back for running a marathon) consider switching up one of the two factors (ex. A pat on the back for walking for two minutes).

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