How long does it take to form a habit? This is a question that has been debated by scientists and psychologists for many years. Some say that it takes 21 days, while others argue that it can take up to 66 days. In this blog post, we will explore what a habit actually is and delve into the science behind habit formation. We will also discuss some tips on how you can break a bad habit, let’s get into it!
What is a habit?
A habit is a behaviour that we repeatedly do. Sometimes it’s conscious, and sometimes it’s subconscious. Habits can be behaviours, routines, or actions. They are developed through constant repetition. Sometimes we can develop habits purposefully to improve performance, productivity, health, or wellbeing. For example, making meditation a daily habit. On the other hand, we can also develop bad habits unintentionally that don’t benefit our mental or physical health. For example, checking social media first thing in the morning.
What is habit formation, and why is it important?
Habit formation is the process of our behaviours becoming automatic. Habits can be formed without us knowing, or they can be formed thoughtfully and intentionally. Our brains form habits when tasks become so easy that they become natural.
For example, when driving a car for the first time. You focus on everything intensely, changing the gears, steering, and checking your mirrors. You might think that you will never get the hang of it. However, after a few lessons, it becomes easier. Your spatial awareness improves, and your driving skills improve. After a few years of driving experience, driving becomes second nature and you’re comfortably able to listen to the radio or chat with friends while driving.
Habits are incredibly important because even though they might seem small and significant at the moment. Over time they compound and have an impact on our lives. A small habit such as going for a 10-minute walk in the morning versus smoking a cigarette when you wake up can have a huge impact on your life expectancy.
The science behind the habit formation process
Habit theory explores the psychology behind the habits which make up human behaviour. We, humans, have a wide range of habits which we act on in our everyday lives, often without even being consciously aware of it. A classic example that many of us may be familiar with is having our first cup of coffee with breakfast. Have you ever found yourself automatically reaching for the kettle or grabbing your mug without thinking? You have your habit to thank for that.
Habit theory proposes that our behaviour is tied to the situational contexts in which they occur. By repeatedly executing a particular action or behaviour in a given situation, we develop an association between the two which becomes so strong that the situation alone is enough to trigger the associated action or behaviour without conscious thought.
Habits form when we repeatedly carry out a certain action or behaviour in response to a given situation. By doing this, we begin to learn and form an association between the two and so the behaviour in question (our response) becomes our default when faced with this situational context and its related cues (the stimulus). Every person and each habit is different, so there’s no way to determine exactly how long and how many repetitions it will take for a particular behaviour to become a habit. Lally et al found that if a behaviour is repeatedly instigated in response to a given situation on a daily basis, it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for it to become a habit, with an average of 66 days.
The key to the development of a habit is the decision to ‘instigate’ the given response behaviour. If someone habitually decides to carry out a particular behaviour at the same time on a daily basis for example, then they are more likely to form an association between the time of day and doing the behaviour, i.e. they will develop a habit of doing the behaviour at the same time every day.
The strongest associations may see this habitual instigation shift from being a conscious decision to an automatic response, to the point where the individual in question may begin executing this behaviour without even having the conscious awareness that they are doing so. In cases like these, habits can be so strong that they override a person’s conscious behavioural intentions.
Tips for breaking bad habits
Everyone has habits, but they aren’t all necessarily bad. Some are really useful — maybe you set up your clothes the night before or turn off the lights automatically when you leave a room, for example.
However, a bad habit, such as biting your nails, drinking coffee too late in the day or hitting snooze multiple times, may not be so beneficial. Breaking an unwanted or unhealthy habit can be difficult, especially if you’ve been engaging in them for a long time. But here are a few tips to help:
- Identify your triggers – Spend a few days tracking your habit to see whether it follows any patterns. Like when it seems to occur or what leads up to it.
- Practice mindfulness – Practising mindfulness can also help you to notice how your habits affect your daily life. Once you start to notice the effects of your bad habits, you may feel more motivated to change them.
- Replace the habit – Replacing harmful or unhelpful habits with a positive habit can have a lot of benefits. But it’s important to remember to maintain balance when building habits again.
- Prepare for mistakes – Try to mentally prepare for slip ups so you won’t feel guilty or discouraged if you do. Be honest with yourself about what led to the setback so you can work on it for next time.
- Let go of the all-or-nothing mindset – Don’t let yourself fall into doubt or self-despair if you don’t see any change straight away, everyone is different and requires their own time to break their habit.
- Start small – Aim to change one habit at a time. Taking small steps towards addressing habits can also be helpful, even if these steps might seem too small or easy to manage at first.
- Motivate with rewards – Acknowledge how far you’ve come, even small motivators can boost your confidence and increase your drive to keep on trying.
Now, the amount of time it takes to break a habit depends on several things. These include:
- How long the habit has been present
- The needs that are met by the habit, whether they are emotional, physical or social
- Whether you have any support
- The rewards the habit provides
If a few weeks have passed, and you feel that you haven’t made any progress, it may be helpful to revisit your approach.
How to maintain new habits once they have been formed
People love to set goals. It can help us focus and be motivated. Unfortunately for us, we often fail to follow through on our good intentions. Even when they have the best of intentions, people are often poor predictors of their own future behaviour.
The Daffodil Experiment shows a good example of this. In spring each year, daffodils are sold to raise money to support charity. The students are motivated because it is for a good charity, have easy access to them since they’re everywhere on campus, and they are inexpensive. When asked how likely they were to buy a daffodil, 83% of undergraduate students said they would. But how many actually did? Only 43%.
Estimates suggest that our willpower to stick to a diet lasts for around five weeks, gym plans fall by the wayside within six months, and almost half of us give up on our other goals and New Year’s resolutions by the end of January. So what can we do about it?
Behaviour change is hard. Really hard. There is a big difference between having a strong desire to do something and then actually taking action. But by being psychologically smart (that is, by maintaining motivation), maximising self-control, looking after yourself, weaving new healthy habits into your daily life and daily routines and also integrating good social support, you give yourself the best chance possible to have a positive impact and create lifelong habits.
Is it true that 21 days make a habit?
The 21 day rule is in fact a myth. It can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a habit to form, with an average time frame of 66 days.
What’s the 21 90 rule?
21 90 is where you commit to a personal or professional goal for 21 straight days. After three weeks, this goal should have become a habit through simple action. Actions into habits. After establishing that habit, you continue doing it for another 90 days.
How long does it take to break or form a habit?
Experts believe it takes about 10 to 12 weeks (2 to 3 months) or longer to break an unwanted habit. Some habits may take longer or shorter to break than others.
MindOwl Founder – My own struggles in life have led me to this path of understanding the human condition. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy before completing a master’s degree in psychology at Regent’s University London. I then completed a postgraduate diploma in philosophical counselling before being trained in ACT (Acceptance and commitment therapy).
I’ve spent the last eight years studying the encounter of meditative practices with modern psychology.