Making sure it's not just made up

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So, I’ve just finished reading a productivity book which quoted an amazing study out of Harvard that began in 1964. They asked the graduating students who had written down their goals – only 5% had.

20 years later, they came back and checked how they went. An unbelievable 95% of the students who had written down their goals had achieved them, compared to only 5% of those who hadn’t written them down. Additionally, the 5% of students who had written down their goals had accumulated more wealth than the other 95% combined.

I’ve heard this study quoted in one form or another over 30 times. The most amazing thing about it is that it never actually happened. My favourite line from this article is Brian Tracey’s quote, upon hearing that the study was an urban myth: “Heard this story originally from Zig Ziglar. If it’s not true it should be.”

Before I get too holier than thou, I have to confess I’ve been guilty too ... I’ve quoted the “fact” that it takes 21 days to form a habit. This “fact” originates from a misinterpretation of the work of plastic-surgeon Maxwell Maltz, who published his observation that patients took a “minimum” of 21 days to adjust to seeing their new face in the mirror.

Self-help gurus (and their audiences) seized upon the idea and began disseminating it as proof that you can change anything in your life in 3 short weeks. Who wouldn’t want to believe it? As each speaker began quoting the other as an authority on the “fact”, it became embedded as common knowledge in our collective conscious, with Maltz’s original methodological limitations and stipulation of 21 days as a “minimum” becoming forgotten over time.

Unfortunately, we now know that there is no such magic number. Apparently, it actually takes between 18 and 254 days (66 on average) to form a habit, depending on the person and the circumstance.

If you are going to write and speak, you not only need content to talk about, you need to have evidence and studies which support that content. You will need some stories too – but that’s a subject for another blog.

I think best practice for this is to find the source material. Read the book or the journal article. Understand the methodology for the study. Read the bio of the author. Learn how to pronounce their name properly. And then bring it to life when you talk about it ... put some drama into it.

At the very least make sure it’s not just made up.