How Long Does It Take To Form A Habit And Break A Bad One?

A calendar for habits

How Many Days Does It Take To Form A Habit?

According to pop culture, it takes just 21 days to break an old habit and form a new one. People have cherished this belief over the past few decades. It’s hardly surprising that so many people cite this as a valid statistic.

After all, all you need to do is to commit to practicing your new habit for three weeks. Then, hey presto, it becomes ingrained. But, as many will attest, three weeks might not be enough to break a particularly ingrained habit.

Are these people weak-willed? Are they just not committed enough? Perhaps they really don’t want to change? Or is there a more straightforward reason why 21 days doesn’t always cut it? In this post, we’ll look at how long it actually takes to form a new habit, and how to make a new habit stick.

How Long Does It Take To Break A Habit?

First off, let’s deal with that magic number – 21 days. It was Dr. Maxwell Maltz who first came up with this time frame. He decided to study how long it took his patients to adjust to the changes made by the surgery he performed.

Now, it’s helpful to understand that Maltz was a plastic surgeon and that the patients that he studied had undergone plastic surgery. So, the research he conducted was not directly related to people who were trying to change habits, but rather those who had to because of a surgical procedure.

It’s also useful to note that he said, at least 21 days, not just 21 days. Considering that the surgery was a fait accompli, and the patients didn’t have a choice but to adjust, it’s not a fair comparison for those who had to who had options.

It wouldn’t be fair to compare this situation to that of someone who chooses to quit smoking, for example. The smoker has the option, and temptation, of being able to light up at any time. The person who underwent surgery does not have the same kind of pressure.

When it comes to breaking a habit, it’s more complicated. The time frame for breaking a habit can vary from one person to the next, based on a range of factors.

How Ingrained Habit Is

You have to factor in just how ingrained the habit is, for starters. Someone who has been smoking for a week, for example, will find it easier to quit than someone who has been smoking for 20 years.

Every time we repeat an action, the neural pathway in the brain related to that action becomes reinforced. Think of it as a path in a field. Every time you walk along the trail, it becomes more defined. Over time, you’ll know where to go automatically, and you can walk the correct route without thinking about it.

The same kind of thing happens in the brain. The brain is always trying to be more efficient. The more often we repeat an action, the easier it becomes for the brain to perform it automatically. Repeating allows the brain to do other things while it goes on autopilot.

So, when you first learn to drive, it’s hard, and you have to concentrate completely on driving. Once you have the hang of it, though, you brake, steer, etc., automatically, without even having to think about it.

That’s because the neural pathway related to driving has become so reinforced by habit. When you get into the car and start it up, that automatic behavior is triggered, and you act without thinking. Willpower has nothing to do with it in most cases,

which is why it can be tough to break an existing, ingrained habit.

Motivation quote on a phone screen

How Motivated You Are

We’ve all been there. At the end of the year, we make New Year’s resolutions. We dust off that gym membership card, toss out all the junk food in the house, and stock up on celery, which works well, until about two weeks into the new year.

That’s about when the motivation starts to fade, and we slip back into old habits. After all, we’ve had a tough day at work; surely we can skip the gym just this once? The problem is that “just once” always multiplies, and we end up spending more time away from the gym than we should.

It’s a classic scenario that most of us have been guilty of at one time or another. But it’s only natural that we fail. Change is difficult, and you need to have a strong motivation to change. If you’re in it initially for the wrong reasons, it’s going to be difficult to reform.

So, if you’re trying to quit smoking because your doctor’s been nagging you to, you are more likely to want to light up again. If you decide to stop because a friend died of cancer, on the other hand, your motivation to change will be stronger.

What Kind of Pressure You’re Under

If you’re in the right place in your life, it’s simple to make healthy choices for yourself. It’s when you’re feeling stressed out, or depressed, or under pressure that it becomes harder to make the right decisions over the easy ones.

How Big the Change Is

The more significant the change, the longer it takes to break an old habit. Let’s say, for example, that we decide to eat an apple a day. That’s not a difficult change to implement because it means that we’re not changing anything too drastically.

But what if you decide to become a vegan? That’s going to be a lot harder because it means a complete overhaul of your lifestyle.

How Many Days Does It Take To Form A Habit?

So, if it doesn’t take 21 days to change a habit, how long does it require? According to a study that the University College London published in 2009,  you’re looking at much longer. The study followed 96 people and documented how long it took to form a new habit.

On average, it took participants about 66 days to make a habit automatic. For simpler habits that you need to implement, participants recorded success in as few as 18 days. For more difficult patterns, it took a lot longer.

Analysts, using the results of the study, extrapolated that it could take as long as 254 days to change a heavily ingrained habit.

What’s more, an interesting pattern emerged. The gains started dwindling over time. It’s like when you’re running a 10-mile race. When you start, you’re fresh and eager, and do well. As the race goes on, though, you begin to tire and so start to move more slowly.

So, if you want to do something simple, like adding an apple to your daily diet, you can probably make it a habit over three weeks. If on the other hand, you wanted to do something more complex, like a half an hour’s exercise a day, it’s going to take longer for the habit to become ingrained.

How to Form a New Habit

Many of us think in terms of absolutes. We have an all-or-nothing approach to many things in life. This attitude can be troublesome when it comes to new habits. Let’s say that we decide that we want to lose weight, for example.

We’ll start a diet and rigorous exercise program. In theory, it makes sense, because you want the best results in the shortest amount of time. In practice, though, it works out to be much harder to maintain a complete change like this because it means obliterating past habits.

When forming a new habit, it pays to take things a little more slowly. You’re not going to get your results as fast as you would the other way around, but you’re also a lot more likely to be able to stick to the new habits.

Here are some other tricks to make new habits stick faster.

Walking up some stairs

Go For Easy Wins

When you’re starting, your motivation levels are at their peak. Over time, it becomes harder to maintain the motivation, especially if you’ve set a more difficult goal. Let’s say that you want to lose 20 pounds, for example.

That’s a hefty bit of weight to lose, and it is going to take a while to drop it so it will be a while before you see significant progress. Why not start with a simpler goal, say losing five pounds?

You could quickly lose two pounds in the first week, bringing you almost halfway to completing that goal. That’s an easy win. You’ll still obviously want to drop the whole 20 pounds, but splitting it up like this makes it seem a lot more achievable.

Use the same logic when it comes to choosing the new habit that you want to adopt. If it’s a significant change, break it up into smaller steps that you can more easily accomplish. That way you get a bunch of easy wins, and this will help you maintain your motivation over the long haul.

Try to Replace the Bad Habit

It’s a lot easier to change a bad habit if you replace it with something else. Let’s say that you usually have a smoke after every meal, for example. When you quit smoking, you’ll still have the urge to smoke when you’ve finished eating.

What you need is something to distract you – so you could, for example, go for a walk after the meal. Replacing the habit, rather than just binning it will make the transition more natural because it gives your brain something else on which to focus.

Associate the Behavior With a Trigger Habit

Remember what we said earlier about the neural pathways in the brain and how they connect to a trigger? If you want to set up a new habit faster, it is better to associate it with an existing habit, something that you do every day.

Say, for example, that you decide that you want to incorporate more exercise into your daily routine. Perhaps you could exercise just after you brush your teeth in the morning. That way, the habit becomes ingrained with something that you were going to do anyway.

When you brush your teeth in the morning, it will be a signal to your brain that it’s time to exercise.

When choosing your trigger habit, choose something that will fit in well with your new behavior. So, for example, it wouldn’t make much sense to eat an apple after brushing your teeth at night. Choose a routine that naturally fits, and it will be much easier to incorporate it.

Wash, Rinse, Repeat

The most important thing when it comes to establishing a new habit, though, is consistency. Work on repeating your new behavior every day for at least three weeks. You need to put in a consistent effort here, at least until the behavior becomes firmly entrenched.

We tend to think that missing a day here and there won’t make much of a difference, but that’s not really how it works if you want the habit to become set as soon as possible. While skipping one day is not that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things, it does set a dangerous precedent.

When your motivation is slipping, it will be easy for one day to turn into two, etc.

Wrapping Things Up

The amount of time that it takes to break a bad habit or set up a new one is not set in stone. Habitual behavior makes things easier for our brains. It gives our minds one less thing to think about. That, combined with the fact that the brain likes routine, makes change more difficult.

So change is hard, but the good news is that if you are persistent, you will succeed. It might take longer than three weeks, but if you put in a consistent effort, you will prevail in the end.

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