It Takes Just One Day to Form a Habit (and Improve Your Leadership Skills)

Until this afternoon, I believed that it takes only 21 days to form a habit. It’s an assertion I had heard many times, but when I repeated it recently I was asked about the science behind it. So today, as I began to write this column about the value of habits to powerful leaders, I looked it up.

Turns out it’s a myth.

According to a recent column in Forbes, the idea that magic happens after 21 days “couldn’t be further from the truth.” Writer Jason Selk explains that this myth is a misinterpretation of work by Maxwell Maltz, who studied and wrote a bestseller about self-image.

Does it matter? I say it doesn’t. Powerful leaders develop habits that create the foundation, structure and space for their leadership to thrive. So let’s replace that 21-day myth with this idea: it only takes one day to form a habit. Let’s start at the beginning.

Importance of habits

I define habits as regular practices repeated consistently, and I believe they offer three benefits that leaders can’t afford to be without:

1. Consistent productivity habits allow leaders to focus freely on the bigger picture 

David Allen, author of ” Getting Things Done,” calls this “appropriate engagement.” Using his methods, we can stop worrying about all the things we need to do by capturing them in a system — and create space in our minds to really think about ideas.

This “productive flow” allows us to have the innovative, exciting, inspiring ideas that are the most important part of leadership. Rather than worrying about the future and remembering the to-do list, these habits create a joyful freedom that Allen calls “mind like water.”

2. Consistent health habits maximize results

In addition to freeing your mind, it’s important for leaders to recognize — in themselves and in others — the importance of all dimensions of performance.

One of my favorite Harvard Business Review articles of all time, “The Making of a Corporate Athlete,” notes that “peak performance in business has often been presented as a matter of sheer brainpower, but we view performance as a pyramid. Physical well-being is its foundation. Above that rests emotional health, then mental acuity, and at the top, a sense of purpose. The Ideal performance state — peak performance under pressure — is achieved when all levels are working together.”

3. Strength, endurance, flexibility and focus enable this peak performance

It starts with some basic habits like getting enough sleep, being careful about what you eat and creating some kind of regular exercise. The good news is that when you begin to experience the benefits, your body will love it so much that you’ll have to continue.

Habits effortlessly demonstrate the behaviors leaders need from their teams. In Tribal Leadership, David Logan and his co-authors teach us that “as people see the world so they behave.” The language we use and the behaviors we model create the culture for the tribes we call our teams. If you want your employees to move from believing “I’m great,” to knowing “we’re great,” you need to model the behaviors you want to see and use the language you want to hear.

Forming a habit

How long does it take to build a habit? I say it takes just one day.

In my yoga practice, I’m always working on my balance. Arm balancing poses are really challenging, but I keep trying them. And when I fall out of a pose, I laugh and try again.

You can do the same with your habits. Get up in the morning and try a new habit. Organize your stuff, or take a walk. See how it feels. Try it again the next day — and if you don’t, forgive yourself and try it the day after.

Try this practice: First, identify the habits you want to create and model for your teams. For example,
read David Allen’s book or take a look at this cheat sheet and try taking the first step, collecting all your stuff so it’s not taking up space in your mind and crowding out the important thoughts. Or take a walk to start getting into shape, to move you toward your peak performance.

Then, talk to some members of your tribe about the new habits you are trying to create. Encourage them to practice with you! Finally, If you miss a day, forgive yourself and try again the next day. Do it this week. After all, it only takes one day to get into leadership habits for a lifetime.


Janet Kyle Altman leads the marketing team at Kaufman Rossin, one of the top accounting firms in the
country. She also is vice chair of The Women’s Fund of Miami-Dade and former chair of Friends of WLRN. A frequent writer and lecturer, Janet’s daily practice of leadership is focused on the vision that women and girls should have equal rights, access and opportunity.

Janet Altman is a Marketing Principal at Kaufman Rossin, one of the Top 100 CPA and advisory firms in the U.S.