How long does it take to break a habit? It is a good question because habits are an integral part of human life.
Everyone has them, whether it is grabbing a cup of coffee in the morning as you head to the office or scrolling through social media before heading off to sleep.
Habits are good because they help create order in our days and keep us from wasting time trying to figure out what to do.
But there are harmful or bad habits that rob us of the opportunity to live happy, healthy lives.
Some of the most common harmful habits include:
- Not exercising
- Drinking excessively
- Not getting enough sleep
- Looking at our phone before sleeping
Such habits either waste our time and/or money, harm our health, or lead us astray in different ways.
Many of us know that we have a bad habit that we need to break. But breaking it is the hard part.
Today we will show you how habits are formed and what you need to do to create new habits in your life.
How Are Habits Formed?
A habit refers to a behavior or practice repeated so often that it begins to occur without a conscious thought. Habits mainly consist of three elements:
- A cue that triggers the action
- An action that comes after the cue
- The reward after the action
For instance, let’s say that you tend to check social media before you go to sleep. In this case, getting into your bed becomes the cue. Simply getting into bed makes you want to check social media on your phone because this is now a fully formed habit.
Once you log in, seeing new feeds from your friends releases dopamine in the brain, making you feel happy. The subsequent happiness is the reward for that action.
The reward part is what makes an action become addictive. One thing about the human brain is that it’s wired for efficiency. It tries to get things done as fast as possible with the least amount of effort.
When you repeat an action several times, your brain registers a pattern of three elements, these include; a cue, an action and a reward. Your brain then creates neural pathways that link these three elements together.
Instead of thinking before acting, your brain automatically activates the neural pathways every time the cue occurs.
So when you head to sleep, you automatically find that your phone is in your hand, and you’re scrolling through social media without even a second thought.
What Is The Difference Between A Habit And An Addiction
Before we look into how to break a habit, it’s important to note that there’s a difference between a habit and an addiction. Addictive habits like gambling, drinking alcohol or smoking are more difficult to break.
You can tell the difference between the two by answering this question: Can I live without this habit, and if I break the bad habit, does it affect me physically?
When you stop an addictive habit, you usually experience physical reactions or withdrawals such as sweating, shaking, nausea and vomiting.
For this reason, non-addictive habits are far easier to change. When it comes to addictive behaviors, due to their nature, you may need professional help to break the habit.
How Do You Break A Habit Quickly?
Now that we’ve covered the science behind habit formation, you can comprehend why breaking habits can be difficult.
The neural pathways that form become lodged in the brain, making it difficult to undo. This is particularly the case if you have been indulging in that habit for a long period of time.
For example, if you have been smoking for 15 years or binge eating since you were in your teens. Still, it is possible to break a habit, and with the right motivation and discipline, you can get rid of the unwanted habit.
The 21 Days To Break A Habit Rule
Most of us have heard that it takes 21 days to break a habit. But, how true is this rule and when did 21 become the magic number in as far as this rule is concerned?
The 21-day rule originated from Dr. Maxwell Maltz, who worked as a plastic surgeon before becoming a psychologist. Maxwell Maltz noticed that it took three weeks for people to get used to:
- New facial features after plastic surgery
- Life without a limb after amputation
- A new house
The doctor relied on his patient’s individual reports instead of scientific evidence. Another issue with the 21-day rule is that none of the behaviors that Maxwell observed were habits that people wanted to break.
Instead, he was observing habituation, which is the process of getting used to something new. In addition to this, Maxwell said it generally takes a minimum of about 21 days and not exactly ’21 days.’
Modern science has much to say about breaking a habit. In another study carried out by researchers from the University College London and published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, the research suggests that it could take 21 days or more to break a habit.
The study evaluated the habits of 96 participants over a period of 12 weeks. It concluded that the average time it takes to break a habit is 66 days.
In another study, the research showed that it took anywhere between 18 to 254 days to break a habit. In this study, the participants were asked to incorporate healthy living, eating, drinking, and exercise habits into their lives.
On average, the study showed that it took 66 days of repeatedly performing a habit for it to become automatic. Skipping a day to do the desired behavior did not interfere with the habit-forming process. But consistently repeating the habit made it easier to perform it quickly.
So how long does it take realistically? The popular notion that it takes 21 days to get rid of a bad habit is not entirely wrong. But it is important to note that Maxwell Maltz said this time frame is just a minimum.
Therefore, for some habits it can take much longer than that and in fact, we should expect for it to take longer than 3 weeks to really break a habit.
How Long Does It Take To Break A Habit Realistically?
As previously mentioned, breaking a habit in 21 days is an oversimplification of the habit breaking process. How long it takes to break a bad habit actually depends on several factors, such as:
- How long you’ve had the habit
- Whether you’ve fully integrated the behavior into your life
- What rewards do you get from indulging in the behavior?
- Your motivation?
- What triggers the behavior in your environment?
- What other behaviors reinforce the habit?
For example, people who drink socially can make a habit out of it because drinking provides that social connection. So if someone wants to break this habit, it may not be easy to do unless they engage with a different set of friends.
Suppose you want to break a habit of buying food from your favorite restaurant on your walk home from work. Instead you decide to cook at home, as it will be healthier and save you money.
However, you may find it difficult to break this habit because smelling your favorite food on your way from work may convince you to eat it just one more time. So, what do you do?
In this situation you may want to consider taking another route home to avoid walking past the restaurant every evening. This will completely remove the temptation.
A recent research showed that habit formation and change is more successful when carried out in a different or new environment.
How To Break Bad Habits In 7 Steps
When you want to break a bad habit, the best way to do this is to find a new habit or new behavior. Simply quitting cold turkey without replacing it with a new habit can be tough because the habit is hard-wired into your brain.
Willpower won’t do you good because you may find yourself relapsing.
To break the bad habit successfully, you should:
1. Aim for small changes first
People try to break small habits by making huge leaps. For instance, you’ve never exercised before but now want to exercise for two hours daily. Every year, people make resolutions that consist of multiple changes that they wish to implement.
For example; exercise more, eat healthy, sleep for 8 hours, start a business etc. However, it can be incredibly difficult to make these huge changes, especially with deep seated behaviors.
For example, if you want to take sugar completely out of your diet. You may not succeed if you cut sugar entirely from your diet. Rather, you can eliminate the habit in stages.
Firstly, you can remove candy and sweetened drinks from your diet. After that, you may cut back on baked goods, and so on and so forth, until you have completely eliminated sugar from your diet.
A replacement behavior should accompany the small steps to increase your chances of success. For example, if you want to reduce your carbohydrate intake or lose weight, you can look for healthy snacks that are equally tasty but lower in calories or carbs.
2. Increase your level of motivation
If you want to incorporate exercise in your daily routine, you may find that it is difficult because you don’t feel motivated. You’ll try it on day one, and after that, you may find that you’re struggling to continue with it.
However, you can increase your motivation by:
- Involving a friend to keep you motivated
- Looking for a replacement activity that you enjoy
- Focusing on the long-term benefits
- Rewarding yourself for the replacement habit, e.g., a yogurt after successfully completing exercise
- Using a motivation app or a reminder system to keep you motivated
These strategies can ramp up your motivation for any habit or replacement behavior, not just exercise. Having a supportive group is also a great way to motivate yourself.
3. Seek professional help and support
You can also consider consulting a therapist if the habit significantly affects your life.
Therapy will help you identify the possible causes and new responses. It can also help you break the bad habit if you’ve already tried to quit on your own.
People develop unhealthy habits for a variety of reasons. However, mental illness, stress or distress, can be challenging to address alone. A good therapist will help you get the root of the issue and equip you with the right tools to work towards change.
4. Remove Any Triggers
Experts state that it’s best to observe the habit and take note of what triggers it.
For example, you may notice that you have a habit of biting your nails when you are feeling anxious.
Understanding what triggers the bad habit will help you figure out ways to break it or find a healthy replacement habit. You can write down these triggers, talk to someone or keep them in mind and work towards breaking them when you notice they arise.
5. Have a Good Reason Behind the Change
Why do you want to change the habit? It is always good to identify why you want to make the change to keep yourself motivated. For example, if nail-biting is the issue, you can consider why it’s important for you to change.
Perhaps it’s because the habit makes your nails look unpresentable and also increases your risk of getting germs. You are more likely to break the habit when you have a good reason behind the change.
Continually use the “why” as a motivator to keep you on track with changing the habit.
6. Don’t Simply Rely on Will Power
Old habits die hard.
We’ve already indicated that unfortunately willpower alone is not enough to remove a habit. If you’ve ever tried to break a habit or start a new one, you may have noticed that willpower wears out (this explains why only 8% of people keep their new resolutions).
Furthermore, willpower only works if the motivation is there.
The issue is that temptation is everywhere and willpower will only last for so long. For example, free pizza or cakes at the office or attractive billboards advertising fried chicken and fries can be hard to resist.
At the end of the day, we succumb to the lure of the temptation and slip back into old habits. Rather than relying on willpower, it is important to look for ways to keep yourself going so that you can achieve your goals, without simply relying on will power.
7. Change Your Environment
Changing your environment is pivotal when trying to break a habit.
If you want to quit eating fatty foods, then re-stocking your fridge with healthy foods and coming up with a healthy menu plan is one way to do it. Or, if you want to quit excessive drinking, getting rid of the alcoholic drinks that trigger you to binge after a bad day at work an help.
This will help you break the habit. If you also have friends who engage in the habit and enable you, it would help to let them know that you’re trying to break the habit and would appreciate their support.
The 21/90 Rule
The 21/90 rule is basically a development of the 21 days to break a habit rule. This rule states that it takes 21 days to remove a habit and 90 days to find a new habit.
Is there a new lifestyle change that you’d like to make? Commit to your goal for 21 days, and it will become part of your lifestyle. This rule works with the following principles:
1. Set your goal
Determine what you want to accomplish or change; for instance, is it a personal or professional goal? Write it down and make sure that it’s visible daily, so that you can remain focused and present in your goal.
2. Make a plan
Plan the steps that you need to take to realize the goal. Take for example, if your goal is to be more active, you can plan a couple of activities that will help achieve this goal; for instance, you can walk frequently or encourage a friend to join you for a morning run.
Focus on taking small steps, and before you know it, you will have adapted to the new behavior and will have new habits formed.
The secret to breaking a habit and moving forward with specific behavior changes is commitment. It is normal to skip one or two days of the new habit or change process.
However, it is not advisable to skip the process for too long. Remember that the less committed you are to the change, the harder it will be for you to break the habit.
Rinse and repeat! The 21/90 rule can be used repetitively to achieve your goals, build your lifestyle and the right habits. Start small but dream big.
Developing Positive Habits Is Hard Work
Letting go of unhealthy habits and developing new ones is hard work. As such, you shouldn’t feel demotivated if the habit doesn’t change after 21 days. The reality is that there’s no guaranteed time frame to get rid of a habit.
Sometimes even having a number in mind, as the end date can make you feel like a failure if you’re not to break the habit within that time period.
Instead, make sure that you aren’t too hard on yourself and decide that however long it will take to break the habit, is how long you will be committed to sticking with it. Most habits in our lives have been ingrained in us for years and so expecting everything to change within 21 days, in most cases is unrealistic.
Habits are meant to be difficult to change but it becomes a lot easier when you can eliminate it by replacing those bad habits with good ones.
Once the new neural pathway becomes stronger than the previous one, the habit will be dropped, as the new habit takes its place. This is why the easiest way to break a habit is to replace it once and for all.
Maintaining curiosity is another important aspect when it comes to breaking a habit. Next time you catch yourself in habitual behavior, pay attention to your emotional mindset.
Ask yourself how that habit makes you feel. Are you trying to relieve a certain feeling? Shift your emotional state or avoid a different behavior?
The more you become aware of these feelings, the more you will be able to reduce the urge to act on them.
The Bottom Line
Lastly, since breaking bad habits can take time, the most important thing to bear in mind is to be kind to yourself and refuse to give up. Be prompt in identifying the challenges, evaluating what is difficult for you, and noting down what can be done about it.
People let go of deeply entrenched habits all the time. So believe it can be done and put the work in to make the change. You will be happier and healthier for it!