Behavioural Change – How Long Does it Take?

March 17, 2012  |   Executive Coaching Blog,Featured   |     |   0 Comment

Often in Executive Coaching clients want to make behavioural changes to build their capability. As an Executive Coach I find that clients anticipate how long and how difficult it is going to be to make a change in different ways. Up to now the prevailing wisdom is that it takes around 21 – 28 days to make a new behaviour become a habit (automatic). However some more recent research shows that this may not be the case.



Where Does 21 Days Come From?


It seems that the 21-28 day timeframe derives from a piece of research by a surgeon who in 1960 was investigating how long it took a patient to adjust to the loss of a limb. However you look at it this may not be the same as the changes that executive coaching clients want to make, for example being more confident in presentations. In fact in many ways you would think that adapting to the life changing circumstances of a loss of a limb would take much longer than 21 – 28 days.


More Relevant Research on Behavioural Change


More recently in 2009 Phillipa Lally and her colleagues from University College London carried out research on the formation of new habits. They recruited 96 volunteers who wanted to make a variety of different changes from drinking a glass of water each morning to doing 50 sit ups before breakfast.


The researchers found that on average it took 66 days (of daily repetitions) to form a new habit so that something became an automatic part of the participants’ lives. However although the average time to make a new behaviour was 66 days there was a wide range of timings between 18 days and over 200 days. It seemed that the things that appeared easier were quicker than those that were harder. For example it took 18 days for drinking a glass of water before breakfast to become a habit, whereas it took a 100 days to do 50 sit ups before breakfast to become a habit. The researchers also made two other interesting findings, Firstly early repetition and practice made the formation of new behaviours more effective. They also found that missing a day did not reduce the chances of making a change.


What Does This Mean for Executive Coaching?


In Executive Coaching there are many models of behavioural change but there are a number of aspects that tend to be common.  Of key importance is the person’s desire to change. As all good executive coaches will know when a person is told to make a change that they don’t see the need to make, the chances of success are minimal. The other important element of successful change is the environment. How supportive are people in helping someone make the change? An Executive Coach is an important source of support for clients making changes in their life. This combined with the principle that coaching is based on the client’s agenda makes executive coaching such a powerful vehicle for making behavioural change.


What Phillipa Lally’s research shows is that the time taken to make a permanent behavioural change will depend on it’s perceived difficulty. So one role of the Executive Coach is to ensure a thorough exploration of the client’s perception of the difficulty of the planned change. The Executive Coach also needs to work with the client to identify the possible barriers to change and options for overcoming them.


The research seems to show that if the client want to makes the change and is doing so in a supportive environment a change of approach e.g. listing tasks and prioritising them each day may become a new behaviour in around 18 – 25 days. A change in personal behaviour e.g. becoming more assertive in certain situations may take longer and based on Lally and her colleagues’ research could take between 66 – 200 days.



So the next time an Executive Coaching client asks how long it might take to make a desired change permanent the answer seems to be based on – motivation to make the change, combined with the perceived difficulty of the change and the level of support in the environment. The answer is likely to be 66 days on average, with a range between 18 and 200 days.




Tony Goddard









Keywords: Executive Coach, Executive Coaching, Behavioural Change, Making Behavioural Changes, Time to make Behavioural Changes, Executive Coaching Clients

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