Global Times Mobile
Illustration: Luo Xuan/GT

Illustration: Luo Xuan/GT

If I had a dollar for every time I made the new year resolution to join a gym and get into shape, I'd have enough money to pay for my own treadmill, which I'd probably use to hang my clothes to dry. Whether you celebrate by counting down from 10 pm on December 31 or by putting up decorations of a rooster all over your house, New Year celebrations across the world share one tradition in common - the desire for self-improvement.

But why is it that we start the year with amazing willpower and determination, only to lose it over the course of a few months? A quick Google search will show that it only takes 21 days to form a new habit, and yet we find ourselves making the same resolution every year. So, what does it take to fulfill our resolutions?

The idea of 21 days to form a habit comes from Dr Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon in the 1950s. Whenever Maltz performed an operation, he found that it would take the patient about 21 days to get used to seeing their new face. Similarly, he noticed that the patient would sense a phantom limb for about 21 days following an amputation.

Maltz wrote down his observations, and in 1960, he published a book called Psycho-Cybernetics in which he talked about the time it takes to adjust to a new change - 21 days. He sold more than 30 million copies.

Nearly every major "self-help" professional misquoted Maltz, saying it only takes 21 days to form a new habit.

Decades passed until a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology shed new light on what it took to form a new habit.

Over the course of 12 weeks, the habits of 96 people were studied. Each person chose a new task for the duration of the study, reporting whether or not they were able to accomplish the task each day and whether it felt like a habit.

The tasks chosen by the test subjects ranged from simple tasks, such as drinking one more bottle of water a day, to the more difficult ones like running for half an hour. The researchers found that, on average, it took 66 days before a new task became automatic, depending on the task, the person, and their circumstances.

The study determined that it can take anywhere from 18 days to 254 days to develop a new habit. But it's not all bad news - they also found that a subject's failure to perform the new task from time to time didn't affect the process of forming a new habit. In other words, it is ok if you mess up. Missing a day doesn't mean you have to start from scratch.

In the end, the secret to forming a habit is perseverance. If after a few weeks you still struggle to stick to your resolution, don't let it get to you. If you want to achieve your new year resolution, you will need to set realistic expectations based on the difficulty of the new habit and allow yourself to make mistakes.

The journey toward self-improvement is filled with many falls, and the only way to reach the end is to pick yourself up and keep walking.

This article was published on the Global Times Metropolitan section Two Cents page, a space for reader submissions, including opinion, humor and satire. The ideas expressed are those of the author alone, and do not represent the position of the Global Times.