How long does it take to form a habit – According to actual science

There are often many fables flung around about how long it takes to form habits. The one that most people spout out is that is takes twenty one days to form a habit. If only it was that easy right? The good thing is that the act of forming habits has been studied in great deal over recent years with many personal development books written on the topic. How long does it take to form a habit? But before we delve into how long it takes to form a habit, lets first start by looking at what a habit it and how they work.

What is a habit and how do they work?

A habit is simply a routine behaviour which happens without thought and subconsciously. Habits come in many forms, but the most common ones are the things you do on a daily basis. Common habits are taking a shower, eating your meals and going to the gym. Habits can be good, habits can be bad.

Defined in Merriam Webster  1as:

a: an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary, got up early from force of habit

b: ADDICTION a drug habit

c: a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition or physiologic exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance the daily bowel habit

But how does a habit actually work? Well simply it is a cycle of trigger and routine/reward.

  1. The trigger > Time of the day, a location, how you are feeling
  2. The Routine > Brush teeth, exercise, eating cookies
  3. Trigger > Routine/Reward > Time of day is morning, so you brush your teeth. Feeling sad, you eat some cookies. You’re in the toilet, you do your business.

As the wise words of Gandhi once put it:

“Your beliefs become your thoughts, 
Your thoughts become your words, 
Your words become your actions, 
Your actions become your habits, 
Your habits become your values, 
Your values become your destiny.”

Gandhi

How long does it take to form a habitwhat does the science say?

So how long did it take for your to starting punching out a packet of cigarettes a day. How long did it take you make going to the gym part of your weekly routine. How long did it take you to get addicted to eating cookies? All of these simple habits that everyday people have but how does it take to form a habit according to the science?

So you’ve probably heard the 21 days to build a habit spun in many places. You know its that time of the year again, new years resolution time. So you decide you are going to turn your life around because well its another year, so why not. I mean it only takes 21 days, should be a breeze right? Alas 21 days comes along and well you’re already struggling to keep this new habit of yours. That’s because it takes much longer that 21 days to build a habit. Where did this 21 days come from then?

This number comes from a super popular book called Psycho-Cybernetics 2 from 1960 by Maxwell Maltz. In this book the plastic surgeon noticed that the patients who undertook surgery would take around 21 days before they were in tune with their look. Hardly a measure of forming a habit, when you actually don’t have to do anything.

In 2009 another study 3showed that it really is not clear how long it does take a habit to form. Researchers at the University College of London looked at new habits formed by a group of 96 people over a 12 week period. They found that on average these new habits took 66 days to actually stick. The habit in each determine how long it would take to form, some took as long as 254 days to be formed as a new habit.

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The Take Away Message about forming habits?

So there is no specific number it takes and it is dependent on the habit you are trying to form. So if you take a rule of thumb that is takes on average 66 days, that’s a good start. So at minimum 2 months not the fallacy of 21 days as many believe. Three weeks is just not simply enough time for a solid habit to form.

The realist is if you want a habit to stick, you need to keep at it for a long time. Your measure of whether something is a habit or not is whether or not you stop thinking about it. I’ll use myself as an example. I decided to chronicle my jump rope transformation before I looked at the topic of forming habits. In this post I have documented the results of forming this new habit including the results. The out take is that I am now at day 115 and I don’t think about jumping, it just happens as part of my day.

How long does it take to form a habit

What about trying to break a bad habit?

This is the super interesting part of forming habits. There is a massive correlation between breaking bad habits and forming new ones. So start thinking about creating a new habit by breaking an old one as part of that process.

Psychologist Timothy Pychyl 4explains this a little further that they are one in the same thing. The creating and breaking cycle is a symbiotic process. Creating a new habit actually just means breaking a bad habit or pattern of behaviour. The old habit still exists within the brain so it needs to be replaced by something new. The new habit is less dominant than the new old habit so it takes a quite for one to replace the other. If I was to jump back to my habit building exercise. I literally swapped sitting on the couch and watching TV with exercise. I rarely if ever watch TV now, I use it as a weekly treat rather than a daily crutch.

How long does it take to form a habit

Neuroscientist Elliot Berkman simply states 5 “It’s much easier to start doing something new than to stop doing something habitual without a replacement behaviour. That’s one reason why smoking cessation aids such as nicotine gum or inhalers tend to be more effective than the nicotine patch.”

So its absolutely clear that breaking a habit is much harder than creating a new one. If you combine creating your new habit as a way of breaking a bad habit this seems to be the most efficient path to both break a bad habit and create a new one.

It probably does depend on the individual as well, your own personality, will power and just your ability to conduct the new habit creation. The first step in this habit creation process is to be the mindset to make sure you see it through and than you have the will and WANT to break the old habit. Remember its most likely you have some kind of motivation to create the new habit and break the old one.

For me personally I am an all in kind of person. When I was reminded by my wife the weight I had gained (due to her health concerns, not the vanity) it put me on a path of a new habit creation and transforming my mind and body with a true will and intent to succeed. This has made losing 20kgs to date in a 7 month period fairly easy due to that commitment to change and new habit forming.

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This rings so true as Berkman adds “People who want to kick their habit for reasons that are aligned with their personal values will change their behaviour faster than people who are doing it for external reasons such as pressure from others”.

In some cases habits can be broken extremely fast. This usually has a lot to do with extenuating circumstances which is forcing the change to happen rapidly. Examples of this would be if you were a drug addict and you had an overdose or if you were texting and driving and nearly got into a massive car accident. These incidents will most likely jolt many into instance action and habit breaking instantly. Nothing better than a glimpse of your life passing you by to get you to change your bad habits.

Types of Good Habits

So you’re wanting to create some good habits. Please see below a list of good habits that you can incorporate into your life. As you have read above they can take some time to create on average it takes 66 days to form a new habit. So don’t go rushing into creating new habits all at one go. Spread them out and make sure that you pace yourself with intent. In the next section I have listed some bad habits (subjective of course) that you may decide to use as your ones to give up in replacement for the good habits.

Healthy Eating – Having a healthy diet is probably one of the best habits a person can have. A great way to look at your body is it is the vessel your life relies upon. You only have one, why not treat it with absolute respect and feed it with the right kind of nutrition. I’m not saying you need to be body as a temple kind of stuff, but be mindful not to over indulge often.

Daily Exercise – Daily?? Yes daily, all it takes is a 20 minute stroll everyday to provide the body with the necessary requirements of activity. With todays sedentary society, just this 20 minutes daily will do your body good. On the other hand you can commit to a hardcore fitness lifestyle which is in my opinion even better. Being super fit is a great thing.

Money Management – Want to be setup for the future being well versed in personal financial management will be great for your future. This can all simply start by running and managing a personal budget where you keep yourself accountable for spendings and savings, with REAL financial goals.

Read Lots – Reading will help you with lots of things. It will build your vocabulary, aid in building your knowledge and competence which will then translate to a greater level of confidence. All high achievers are big readers.

Good Hygiene – This one goes without saying but alas some people are oblivious to this fact. Take care of your hygiene, its that simple.

Tell the Truth – Yes this one seems random, but having integrity and being truthful will set you up for a good life. Being manipulative and lying will leave skeletons in the closet that will come back to haunt you one day. Speak the truth.

Practice Gratitude – Being thankful for the life you have and what you have has been proven to make people happier. Heard of a gratitude diary? No, well start one today. A simple task of writing several things daily that you are thankful for.

Practice Mindfulness – You may well turn off at this point if you’re not into woo woo stuff. But meditation ain’t woo my friends. Like practicing gratitude this can well and truly lead to a happier life, just by spending some moment in silence and alone. This can be hard for some but try it and stick with it. Definitely one of those hard new habits to keep.

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Be Punctual – This is just plain respect. Time is the only true currency that humans hold. If you value time, you will value others time. So be on time.

Practice being Positive – This whole blog is about the power of the mind. The way you feel is definitely all up to you. It is a choice. You can choose to be glum or to be happy. So choose happiness and practice being positive. Simple things like actively smiling as a habit will help Surround yourself with happy people and rid yourself of negative people.

Invest time in a hobby you love – Dedicate sometime daily/weekly to something you love doing as a hobby. You love doing it so why not practice doing it as a habit.

Take Naps – Yes napping. When ever you get a chance for an afternoon nap take it. Sleeping will be the new exercise over the next decade. We are only just realising how powerful sleep is so get on the wagon early.

Types of Bad Habits

Now bad habits can well and truly be subjective to the individual. To me this is what I see personally as bad habits and things that I would classify as bad habits.

Stress Eating – I spoke about it at the start of this article. Emotional state being the trigger and the reward is eating poorly. Be actively aware of your stress eating. When you are feeling stressed rather than eating a tub of icecream, swap it for some meditation or some exercise. Don’t stress on it hard, try and work it out. Find solutions.

Hanging out with negative people – This is a simple one. You have negative people in your life. You don’t need that shit! The saying goes you are the outcome of the 5 closest people to you. Negative people will just poison you mind. Lose these people.

Smoking – Mate its not only bad for you and one of the leading causes of cancer. It’s just straight up gross. I’m still amazed how many intelligent people still smoke, addiction a hell of a thing. So drop this habit asap.

Excessive Drinking – Yes there is such a thing as drinking in moderation. In Australia where I am from, the recommended amount of alcohol per day is no more than 2 standard drinks a day. The other thing you should be wary of is binge drinking. This is slowly but surely killing your brain.

Watching too much TV – Yeah there is a reason they call it the idiot box. There is nothing worse than people who say they don’t have enough time, yet they spend hours in front of the TV all the time. According to Nielsen the average american watches 5 hours per day! FIVE HOURS!!! Want to get more productive in your life get rid of this time wasting exercise.

Being Late – This is just plain rude and disrespectful. This is a clear representation that you do not respect or value someones time.

Focusing on the Negatives – The human condition unfortunately sways to a negative bias. This being known we can adopt the way we think. Practice seeing the positive rather than the negative. Most things have both sides it all depends on how you frame it. My favourite example of this is failure. Those who are negative will see failing as a bad thing, rather than having tried and learned something new. Flip things to the positive.

  1. Merriam Webster Habit Definition
  2. Psycho-Cybernetics Full Text
  3. How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world
  4. Timothy Pychyl on habit creation
  5. Elliot Berkman on habit creation

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