21 Days to Cultivate Life Transforming Habits

Yoga at sunrise

Have you ever thought of picking up a good habit, but never got around to doing it? Perhaps you tried to do so for 1-2 days, but lacked the discipline to continue on. Perhaps you are overwhelmed by the effort needed to develop the new habit and never got around to doing it.

Introducing the 21-Day Habit Trial Program. :) This is a self-initiated program where you stick to a certain habit for 21 days, every day. While it can be used to cultivate new habits, you can use it to test out any new activity, such as waking up early, quitting soda, sticking to a new diet, making new friendsmeditating, going to work early, doing an act of kindness, etc. The list is endless.

The 21-day trial is not limited to good habits — you can use it to break bad habits. Do you have any bad habits, such as spending too much time on social media, putting off work to the last minute, binge eating, sleeping late, smoking, or biting your nails? You can breaking these bad habits with the 21-day trial as well.

Why 21 days?

The 21-day trial is based on the age-old belief that it takes 21 days to fully form a new habit.

According to research, it takes 21 days to fully form a new habit, as 21 days is the time required for new neuropathways to be fully formed in your brain. From the Aristotle blog (site now defunct):

“Dr Maxwell Maltz wrote the bestseller Psycho-Cybernetics. Originally a Plastic Surgeon, Maltz noticed that it took 21 days for amputees to cease feeling phantom sensations in the amputated limb. From further observations he found it took 21 days to create a new habit. Since then the ’21 Day Habit Theory’ has become an accepted part of self-help programs.

Brain circuits take engrams (memory traces), and produce neuroconnections and neuropathways only if they are bombarded for 21 days in a row. This means that our brain does not accept new data for a change of habit unless it is repeated each day for 21 days (without missing a day).”

While some sources have since tried to disprove this 21-day claim, the point is that 21 days is a comfortable time period to build and maintain a new habit. During the 3 weeks, you learn what it takes to cultivate this habit and whether this is a habit you want to stick with for life.

Why do a trial?

There are 3 reasons why doing a habit trial is great.

1. Low commitment

Many people procrastinate on developing certain habits, even though these are good habits that will bring significant benefits into their lives. That’s because they are overwhelmed by the thought of doing an activity for life.

When you do a 21-day habit trial, the task becomes much more manageable. 21 days is just 3 weeks — much shorter than the rest of your life. It’s easy to channel your efforts and make something happen for just 21 days vs. forever.

Since it’s a trial, you do not need to commit beyond the 21 days. After the trial, you decide whether your life is better off with or without that habit. If you like this habit, you can continue with it. If you don’t like it, you can revert to what you were doing before. No obligations!

2. Great way to try new things

A 21-day habit trial creates a great experimental ground to try new things — for example, meeting someone new every day, messaging a new stranger on a dating app daily, trying a new diet, or pitching your products to a new company daily. You can easily embark on new, exciting activities with this habit trial. Since you are not committing to this habit beyond 21 days, you can chuck it aside if you don’t like it. It’s as simple as that :)

The 21-day trial has helped me try out interesting activities and pick up extremely good habits along the way. I have done 21-day fitness trials, 21-day raw diets, 21-day social media detoxes, and a 21-day fast. Many people often say “This is not for me” before they try something.  The whole point is to experience it for yourself, because you never know what it is like until you try it out. Not only do you get to practice self-discipline, but you try out something new, and you have the evidence to discontinue if it doesn’t turn out well. Again, if you don’t like it, there’s no need to continue beyond the 21 days.

3. Effective way to build good habits

Many people have a laundry list of good habits to cultivate, such as exercising, going to work on time, and cutting down unhealthy food. While they make a mental note to work on them, they never get around to doing that because of different reasons.

Rather than waste time in the “want-to-do” phase which happens to many, the 21-day trial is a great way to quickly try and build these good habits.

Rules of the 21-Day Trial

There is only one simple rule of this trial. You must perform the activity every day, without fail, for 21-days. If you slip before the trial is up, you need to start over from day one.

Why? Firstly, breaking the habit for one day will affect your experience of the activity, which subsequently clouds your findings. As mentioned above, it takes 21 days to develop a new habit. If you want to do this, do it well and do it right! Secondly, when we tell ourselves that we can just skip a day or two, this creates a new habit of skipping a day or two every few days. This normalizes a bad behavior and makes it difficult for us to commit to simple goals.

Success of the trial is measured by your ability to stick with the activity for 21 consecutive days, which means you would have developed it into a habit by then. Your conclusions on whether to continue the habit depends on whether you think you are better off with or without this habit.

Success Strategies

Here are 6 tips to succeed in this trial:

1. Research

Spend some time learning about the habit first. Learn the common barriers people face when adopting this habit and the key things you should watch out. Craft your strategy and create an action plan to counter those issues so that you will not be like a deer caught in the headlights when you face these issues later. Having a proper plan increases your success rate significantly.

2. Try the activity for a couple of days before the trial

This lets you get the hang of what it is like and prepare for what’s up ahead for the 21 days.

3. Spend a day or two to mentally prepare yourself before the trial

Mentally prepare yourself for the 21 days ahead to set you in the right mood for success. During this time, you can either (1) pick up the activity in a small way, to create a momentum, or (2) do the complete opposite of what you need to do to create a propelling force.

For example, before I went on a raw vegan trial, I spent the evening before eating whatever cooked food I had some craving for. This was to kill off the last remnants of attachment I had with cooked food so that I could embark on the trial without any distraction. It worked out great — I got really sick of cooked food that evening and went into my raw vegan experiment easily. It was only towards the end of the first week when my cravings for cooked food started kicking in, but by then I was already raw for a week and the momentum to continue the habit was already in place, so I eventually finished the 21-day trial successfully.

4. Track your progress for the 21 days

Chart the 21 days on a large piece of paper on your wall, a whiteboard, or somewhere where you can see it. This needs to be in a place that is constantly in your line of vision so that you are always reminded to stick to the trial. When you successfully finish a day, cross it out on your chart. This creates instant gratification for your hard work and pushes you to do the same for the next day.

I have a white board in my room for this purpose. When I embark on a 21-day trial, I draw the 21 days on the board and cross out each day when I am done with it. Whenever I see the number of days I have accomplished, it reminds me of how far I’ve come and motivates me to move forward with it.

5. One at a time

When doing the 21-day trial, make sure you don’t stretch yourself thin. I often tell my clients it’s best to focus on one goal at a time to reap the most reward. When you have the foundations for the first goal in place, you can then move to the next one. When you have integrated the second goal into your schedule, you can then work on the third goal. And the fourth goal. Etc. Only work on multiple new goals at a time if you have the capacity to handle them. It is pointless to try all your goals at once if you have not developed the capacity to handle them — everything will crumble. Slow progress is better than no progress.

6. Write out affirmations

Write out positive affirmations for your habit and stick them in a prominent place. The affirmations should be written in way that suggests that you are already doing the habit now. For example, if you are planning to wake up at 6am, write the affirmation as “I wake up at 6am every day,” and not “I am going to wake up at 6am every day.” The former sends the signal to your subconsciousness that you ARE already doing this now and it reinforces a successful 21 days ahead.

What to Expect in the 21 Days

Week 1: Induction

Week 1 is when you are moving fast speed ahead. The best way to have an easy Week 1 is by generating momentum before the trial (see tip #3 above).

Week 2: Resistance

Week 2 is when you face the biggest challenge of the trial (this also depends on the difficulty of your habit). You will start to experience resistance of all sorts that pull you back to your previous lifestyle. If you have prepared your action plan well, you should be able to overcome these resistances with minimal effort.

Week 3: Integration

This is the stage of the flow, when the habit becomes commonplace in your life. Even though it’s just been 2 weeks since embarking on this habit, the period before the trial probably feels like a distant past. If you had previously procrastinated on this habit, you are probably wondering why it took you so long to get this going, because everything seems so easy and natural! :D By now, you should be noticing benefits from sticking to this habit, if any.

If you have gotten this far, congratulations! You are already on your way to integrating this habit into your life! :D

My 21-Day Trials

I have done a few trials before, including the ones below. Most started from a place of curiosity, where I wanted to know what it was like doing them. Some became permanent habits because I got many benefits from them. This links to benefit #2 of the 21-day trial — it’s a great opportunity to experiment and try different things. :D You never know what comes out of a 21-day trial!

List of Habits

Here are some examples of things you can try out for the 21-day trial:

  • Sleeping at X time every day
  • Waking at X time every day
  • Waking up early
  • Reaching work early
  • Sleeping X hours a day
  • Spending a maximum of X hours at work (for the workaholics)
  • Exercising: Going to the gym, swimming, jogging, playing tennis, etc.
  • Going to work on time
  • Cutting out mass media (TV, newspapers, radio)
  • Cutting out junk food (fast food, fried food)
  • Cutting out chocolate and candy
  • Cutting out processed food
  • Drinking 8 glasses of water
  • Quitting soda
  • Cutting out coffee
  • Meditating
  • Polyphasic sleep
  • Having a good posture
  • Loving yourself
  • Showing love and kindness to at least 1 person
  • Sticking to your skincare regimen
  • Making a new friend every day
  • Connecting with your parents
  • Talk to someone new daily
  • Better oral care: Brushing and Flossing daily
  • Reading a book
  • Listening to podcasts
  • Doing work on time
  • Not cracking your knuckles
  • Not grinding your teeth (including eating ice)
  • Not cursing
  • Not complaining
  • Not gossiping about others
  • Not criticizing or judging others
  • Checking email only once a day (for those who check emails incessantly)
  • Not biting your nails (for those who bite their nails)
  • Quitting smoking (for smokers)
  • Not playing games at all (for gaming addicts)

Try this out in your life and see how it works out. The key is to pick a habit, integrate it fully into your life first, before working on the next one on the list. If you have too many trials and you are not sure which one to start, pick the ones that correspond to the Quadrant 2 activities.

Before you know it, 21 days will be over and you would have acquired a new experience! :D By then, you can either continue the activity or discontinue it and move on to other habits.

This is part of the Cultivate Good Habits Series. Check out the full series:

  1. 21 Days To Cultivate Life Transforming Habits
  2. Waking Early9 Reasons To Wake Up Early | 21 Tips To Wake Up Early
  3. Quitting Soda5 Reasons To Quit Drinking Soda (And How To Do It)
  4. Improve Your PostureBenefits of a Good Posture (And 13 Tips to Get One)
  5. Be TV-Free: 10 Reasons You Should Stop Watching TV
  6. Being On TimeHow To Be On Time
  7. Meditation10 Reasons You Should Meditate | How To Meditate in 5 Simple Steps
  8. Manage Emails EffectivelyHow To Manage Your Emails Effectively
  9. Run Barefoot: 10 Reasons To Run Barefoot
  10. Emotional EatingHow To Stop Emotional Eating (6-part series)