Forming Effective Behavior Change

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”


Some say that it takes 21 days to form a new behavior.  At the DBT Center of Orange County our team believes that learning how to be effective and change maladaptive behaviors depends first and foremost on building awareness on a platform of patience and self-compassion.

If you want to set your expectations appropriately, the truth is that it will probably take you anywhere from two months to eight months to build a new behavior into your life — forget the 21-day formula!  This is a set-up for disappointment and self-flagellation.

Researchers have discovered that “missing one opportunity to perform the behavior did not materially affect the habit formation process.” In other words, it doesn’t matter if you mess up every now and then. Building more effective behaviors into your life is not an all-or-nothing process.

Remember that making a mistake once or twice has no measurable impact on long-term behavioral change. This is why you should treat failure like a scientist, give yourself permission to make mistakes, and develop strategies for getting back on track quickly.

Embracing longer timelines can help you realize that behavioral change is a process and not an event. All of the “21 Day” hype can make it really easy to think, “Oh, I’ll just do this and it’ll be done.” But changing behaviors does not work that way. You have to embrace the process. You have to commit to the system.

Understanding this from the beginning makes it easier to manage your expectations and commit to making small, incremental improvements — rather than pressuring yourself into an all or nothing mindset. At the end of the day, how long it takes to form an effective behavior doesn’t really matter that much. Whether it takes 50 days or 500 days, you have to put in the work either way.

The only way to get to Day 500 is to start with Day 1. So forget about the number and focus on doing the work! We encourage you to think about a behavior that stops you from Building a Life Worth Living – it may be a behavior that keeps you stuck, a behavior you want to change!  When you have a thought or urge to act out in the behavior, try some of the following ideas to refocus your thoughts, and engage you in a different way:

  • Identify 3 Gratitudes daily
  • Practice Loving Kindness Meditation
  • Do a random act of kindness with Mindful intention daily
  • Focus on at least one Positive aspect of your day
  • Identify your triggers to self-sabotage and write them down
  • Build awareness of self-judgment
  • Do one thing – large or small – to nurture yourself daily like going to bed early, taking a nap, getting a massage
  • Frequently renew your commitment
  • Avoid situations where you practice maladaptive behaviors, like meeting friends at a bar if you want to stop drinking

We welcome your ideas.  Please share them with us.

Dr. Michele Lob PsyD., MFT, CEDS, Executive Director, DBT Center of Orange County