A Scientist’s Approach on Reaching Goals in the New Year

We’ve all heard the idea that the magic cusp for something switching from a task to a habit, is around 21 days. The problem… This isn’t true.

THIS article from Huffington Post, shows the origins of this myth likely started in the 1960s, and has been perpetrated ever since. This article sites the work of Phillippa Lally, who tested this hypothesis, then used a modeling projection to determine the actual endpoint for a variety of new habits (P Lally, C van Jaarveld, H Potts, & J Wardle, 2010). As you would expect, the more complex the task, the longer it takes to become a habit, so it wouldn’t make sense for there to be a blanket number of repetitions that make something a habit. Lally’s work indicates that a goal that requires less effort is achieved more quickly than a more complex goal, with a general range of 18-225 days (Lally, et. al., 2010).


The specific definition varies depending on the scientific field, but it typically refers to an environmental cue followed by an action (Gardner, 2015; Gardner, Lally, & Wardle, 2012). This can be something as simple as “after breakfast” (the cue), I’ll “walk for 15 minutes” (the action), or “before eating” and “drink one 16 oz glass of tap water.”


Goals have five common characteristics, as defined by Locke & Latham, 2002.

  1. They serve a directional function in that they focus effort on activities relevant to achievement of the goal.
  2. They energize when physical effort and repeated performance is required.
  3. They are persistent. Tight deadlines typically require focused effort for a short period of time, while more difficult tasks require less effort over a long period of time. Space and structure your goals appropriately.
  4. Goals affect action, in that they encourage you seek knowledge and plan a strategy in order to achieve them.



Rome wasn’t built in a day and you are not going to be able to go from a sedentary life to running marathons in a month. Start by writing your over all general goal, like “run a marathon.” Now break that goal down into a set of intermediary goals. If I want to run a marathon, I’ll need to be able to run a 1/2 marathon, 10K, 5K and a single mile. These are your subgoals.

Now do a serious self assessment as to your current point within those subgoals. How can I get to running a mile? Research plans in whatever area you’re goal would fall, be it physical activity or health behaviors, and see what has worked for others. Remember, the people who are most successful at achieving their goals start small and have only a few (Gardner, et. al., 2012; Locke, et. al., 2002; Lally P, Chipperfield A, & Wardle J, 2008).



Using the diagrams above as a frame, how long would each individual training session last? How many weeks to complete the smallest of the goals above? Working from this smallest goal to your ultimate goal, you’ll have a realistic expectation of how long it is going to take to run a marathon. Remember, you want to focus on only a couple of very important things. If you try to do too much too quickly, you’ll be overwhelmed and end up finishing nothing.


Missing a single session/day is not going to break you. Many of the studies I read indicate that missing an occasional day of training, or having a single day where you don’t stick to your plan is not going to be the end of the world (Gardner, et. al., 2012; Locke, et. al., 2002). Have a plan in place to get yourself motivated if this happens. Some use monetary rewards, and cash them out when they need a little bonus in inspiration (Locke & Lathum, 2002). The key is to get back on track as soon as possible. Don’t put off starting again because you’ve already “wasted” a day, because that day easily becomes a week, then a month, then a year and you’re back to where you started.

Surround yourself with supportive, like minded people. If you have a fitness goal, workout with a buddy, but don’t let their participation be the only motivation for reaching your goal. It’s very easy to let others derail your plans. You’ve made this appointment with yourself, it’s up to you to keep it.

Public commitment, such as posting on facebook or twitter, or starting a blog works for some, but some also find the simple action of announcing their plans satisfying enough to detract from actual progress toward a goal (Locke & Lathum, 2002). Remember to schedule time for yourself and KEEP those appointments. I make appointments in my google calendar and DO NOT MOVE them. This helps me keep on track and not push things off to another day/week/month.


If you have a plan in place, START! Don’t wait for the next Monday, or the beginning of the month. When you’re motivated to start, start NOW!


Many goal oriented programs/ or theories avoid the idea of maintenance and continued renewal of direction and self assessment. They also don’t address maintaining the progress you’ve already made. This is most prominent in diet and weight loss (Lally, et.al., 2012; Manore M, 2015).


UP NEXT: Diet strategies for weight loss–a focus on “Volumetrics” by Dr Barbra Rolls. 



Gardner B (2015), “A review and analysis of the use of “habit” in understanding, predicting, and influencing health-related behavior.” Health Psycho Reviews, 9(3); 277-295.

Gardner B, Lally P, & Wardle J (2012), “Making health habitual: the psychology of habit formation and general practice.The British Journal for General Practice, 62(605); 664-666.

Lally P, van Jaarveld C, Potts H, & Wardle J (2010), “How are habits formed: modeling habit formation in the real world.” European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6); 998-1009.

Lally P, Chipperfield A, & Wardle J (2008), “Healthy habits: efficacy of simple advice on weight control on a habit-formation model.International Journal of Obesity, 32(4); 700-707.

Locke EA & Latham GP (2002), “Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: a 35-year odyssey.American Psychologist, 57(9); 705-717.

Manore M (2015), “Weight management for athletes and active individuals: A brief review.Sports Medicine, 45(Suppl 1); 88-92.


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