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How Long Does It Take to Form & Break A Habit?

How long does it take to form a new habit? Does everything you repeatedly do turn into a habit?

These are some of the most common questions people ask nowadays. However, the answer isn’t straightforward. Forming new habits doesn’t have an exact time as it depends on many things.

According to the most common theory, forming a habit takes 21 days. Others believe forming a habit in 21 days is a myth and that it can take up to 66 days.

One thing is certain – habits govern our lives. Our success or failure depends on our habits to a great extent.

Complex behaviors we repeatedly perform have a major effect on how we are perceived in society. And our habits reflect the kind of personality we have.

But what if you want to change your habits? What if you want to improve them?

In this article, we’ll review common beliefs and scientific studies about forming and breaking habits.

We’ll help you understand how to make your new habit stick, what is the role of a positive life routine in forming a habit and whether physician exercises help in this process.

How Long Does It Take to Form & Break A Habit

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How Long Does it Take to Form & Break a Habit Psychology?

Psychologists have been trying to determine the exact time frame of the habit formation process for so long. However, it turns out that forming or breaking a habit is a complicated process.

It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about simple behaviors such as having breakfast at the same time every day, enjoyable behaviors like rewarding yourself after success, or more complex behaviors like practicing mindfulness, forming a habit requires a great deal of effort.

Based on the exploratory study conducted in 2009, the habit formation process takes from 18 to 254 days. However, the participants needed 66 days on average in order to automatically perform a new behavior.

While some theorists don’t believe that a habit is necessarily something we do automatically, a 2021 study proves that “habits are actions that are triggered automatically in response to contextual cues”.

A decade has passed since this research and today there are a lot of peer-reviewed studies trying to prove the exact time for forming a habit.

For example, a 2020 study of college undergraduates shows that forming a new habit requires about three months but it depends on the role of self-control (van de Weiden, 2020).

Still, people often rely on popular books instead of scientific data.

How Long Does it Take to Form & Break a Habit Psychology

It takes 21 Days to Form a Habit

The most popular idea about the time frame for forming a new habit belongs to Dr. Maxwell Maltz.

In fact, in his 1960 self-help book called “Psycho-Cybernetics, A New Way to Get More Living Out of Life”, Dr. Maltz recommends people to practice positive behaviors for 21 days to turn them into a habit.

Dr. Maltz was a plastic surgeon who came up with this 21-day habit formation idea in the process of observing his patients.

He noticed that patients needed about 21 days to get used to their new body or face after an operation.

That’s how his theory of 21-day habit formation started.

Decades have passed, and people still accept Dr. Maltz’s idea as an objective fact. However, the research proves otherwise.

Today, his theory is often referred to as a myth because psychologists found out that forming a habit depends on several factors.

66 Days to Form a Habit

Some theorists believe that the 21-day theory would work only if we tripled that number. That’s another popular framework for habit formation.

The study conducted in 2009 demonstrated that participants needed at least 2 months to form a new habit (Lally et al., 2009).

Although it’s almost twice as much as the 21-day theory, this optimistic study also showed some positive results.

First of all, the participants sometimes forgot to practice a new habit. However, the researchers concluded that missing a single day didn’t reduce the effectiveness of forming a new habit.

Besides, simple habits such as drinking a glass of water daily were formed quicker.

In fact, it took just 18 days for people to automatically perform some healthy habits. But other types of habits need much longer.

Nevertheless, the research data isn’t consistent, and as psychologists believe, positive and negative rewards, behavioral complexity, environmental cues, consistently on time off days, and a lot of other things determine the success of forming a new habit.

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How Can You Make a New Habit Stick?

Even when you notice that you’re automatically performing a new activity, it doesn’t mean that you’ve already formed a habit.

Modeling habit formation is a complicated process, and even when you’ve acquired a new habit, it doesn’t mean this habit will stick for months.

However, using the right techniques and being mindful can help people form new habits and stick with them.

According to behavioral psychology, the key aspect of forming a new habit is called Positive Reinforcement.

It’s a common principle of psychology, often used during Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which means that by offering a reward after performing a certain behavior, you encourage the process of learning this behavior.

Therefore, in order to turn an activity into a habit, repeating it isn’t enough. No matter whether it’s about a bad habit or pleasure-based habits, they need to be positively reinforced by some rewards.

And this reward can be anything, including food, money, or social reinforcement like expressing praise or approval.

The most successful technique for maintaining the habit is “Habit Reflection”.

This technique is based on the idea of using your past experiences in your present life. Habit Reflection is a simple method involving 3 basic steps:

  1. Choose a past situation – think about the last time when you successfully formed a new habit and replaced your long-term behavior.
  2. Write down things learned from this past situation – try to explain how you learned a new habit in the past. Write down the tactics, strategies, and tips for yourself that have worked in the past.
  3. Create a plan – create a plan for “do’s and don’ts”.  Try to set realistic goals and focus on your progress. Don’t forget to reward yourself in order to reinforce the process.
How Can You Make a New Habit Stick

How Does Positive Life Routine Help in Developing a Habit

Did you know that a month of sobriety increases the likelihood of avoiding relapse for people with a long history of relationship with alcohol?

There’s plenty of data that proves a positive life routine helps you break any type of unhealthy habits or addictions, whether it’s about substance use or toxic intimate relationships.

Although forming a bad habit is much easier than a healthy one, sticking with healthy habits is simpler because it’s more rewarding.

Eating healthy food, running in the morning, or jogging every day helps you form a positive mental image of yourself.

Positive self-perception leads to high self-esteem, which helps people stick with their healthy habits and develop a positive life routine. Having a positive life routine makes it easier to form a habit and stick with it.

How Long Does it Take to Form a Habit of Working Out

As we mentioned, on average, it takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days to form a new habit. And this habit becomes automatic after 66 days of performing the behavior.

However, when it comes to working out, there’s no right or wrong time. As fitness trainers suggest, there’s no good or bad time forming the habit of working out.

It depends entirely on the motivation of an individual. And once they notice the result of their fitness routine, the likelihood of sticking with the habit increases.

Exercising, physical activity, and self-determination create a positive circle. Usually, a single gym habit is accompanied by various other healthy habits, such as eating healthy food or drinking water.

After some time, the daily habit of working out leads does not only result in a fit body or weight loss but also to a completely new, healthy lifestyle. People start to perceive walking, running, jogging, or exercising as rewarding behaviors.

The time spent on reaching this healthy lifestyle is individual and depends on one’s effort and dedication.

How Long Does it Take to Form a Habit of Working Out

How Physical Exercising Helps Developing New Habits

Now let’s see how exercising has the power to form a positive circle of healthy habits. Once you get into this circle, chances are high you’ll end up having a healthy lifestyle.

  1. After a lot of effort, you finally start working out. In the beginning, you force yourself to work out for one hour every day. You do this for a week.
  2. A week passes, and you notice that you’re full of energy. You decide to start drinking more water in order to feel even more energetic.
  3. One more week and you notice that your clothes no longer suit you, you have lost weight. You decide to change your style and buy new clothes that suit your new figure.
  4. You realize that trying healthy food will boost your metabolism. You’re determined to make your daily routine even healthier and start eating fruit, vegetables, dairy products, and cereals. You feel confident.
  5. You notice that you sleep better every night. You no longer feel stress and pressure.
  6. You have already turned working out as a consistent behavior. The results of exercising surprise you.  Now you want to realize some practical ideas like buying a new water bottle, discovering new healthy recipes for breakfast, or buying gym clothes to feel even better about yourself.
  7. You exercise every day, eat better, sleep well, and feel positive emotions. You feel good about your new lifestyle.

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Frequently Asked Questions About How Long Does It Take To Form A Habit

How can I stop my bad habits and addictions?

The first thing you need to do to break bad habits and addictions is to realize their harmful effects on your body and mind. Start with small steps. Set a realistic goal of changing your negative habit to a positive one.

Identify your triggers and try to stay away from temptations. Focus on what you want to change and leave yourself reminders not to miss a single day of forming a new, positive habit.

What is the 21 days rule?

The 21-day rule claims that a person needs 21 days in order to form a new habit. This theory belongs to Dr. Maxwell Maltz, an American cosmetic surgeon who observed that his patients needed 21 days to get used to their bodies after plastic surgery.

As he says, if you perform an activity for 21 days, it will become a habit. However, modern studies criticize this theory and prove that a habit formation process requires about 66 days, although it depends on many factors.

How long does it take to form a habit on average?

According to research, on average, people need 66 days to form a habit, regardless of what type of habit it is. Usually, a person can form a habit at anytime from 18 to 254 days.

However, generally, a few months is enough to form a new habit. On average, the behavior becomes automatic after 66 days.

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