How Long Does it Take to Form a Habit?
People know change is tough. They want to know when things get easier.
They want to eat healthier, exercise more, smoke less, and save more. But they want to know how long they need to do it before becomes less of a struggle.
So it’s common for people to ask:
“How long does it take to form a habit?” It’s one of the most common questions when people want to change their behavior.
That’s normal. Everyone struggles with making changes. Ultimately, we’re wired to be creatures of habit. Not creatures that change habits. At least not easily.
How long does it take? Unfortunately, it’s not a simple answer. And probably longer than you might expect.
If you read up on habits, goals, or motivation in the media, you may have heard of the big myth. That it takes 21 days to form a habit.
As with most myths, there’s a problem. It was never based on solid evidence. It’s just something that people came to accept as fact.
The myth can be traced back to a plastic surgeon named Maxwell Maltz. He wrote a book called Psycho-Cybernetics where he reported a number of phenomenon took around 21 days.
It wasn’t based on any real study. It was anecdotal. Based more on his personal observations with his patients and self-image than anything related to habit formation and behavior. One example included how long amputees sensed phantom limbs.
However, there are a few reasons why the myth persists.
- People still believe it’s true. They’ll tell their family, friends, and colleagues through word of mouth. Without really fact checking it. They trust the person they heard it from, so it seems like reliable information.
- You still see it everywhere in the media, in advertising, and on products. How many programs have you seen that use some form of: “21 days to a healthier you!” They may not be talking about habit formation directly. But we form a strong association with the number 21 because we see it so often.
- It’s an easy and convenient number to remember. 21 days. Three weeks. We adore simple, easy to remember facts and numbers. We prefer clarity over uncertainty. And 3 weeks – or 21 days – fits the bill perfectly.
A More Recent Look
The most recent study on the matter comes from the University of London in 2010. It’s one of the few studies that tried to answer the question of how long it takes to form a habit.
Researchers looked at 96 people over the course of 12 weeks. Everyone in the study was pursuing a habit that pertained to their health. Activities like drinking a glass of water, doing situps, or jogging after coffee.
In short, real life habits that we can relate to.
The participants would report each day if they performed the activity. They also recorded how “automatic” the activity felt.
Was the study perfect?
No, of course not. But the really good thing is that it mirrored real life in a lot of ways. And it’s the best study on habits to date. At least that I know of.
What They Found
So what did they find?
That it takes longer than 21 days. The real answer isn’t simple, which may not surprise you. However, it will disappoint those those who like simple answers.
After looking at all the data, they found that it took participants an average of 66 days before an activity became automatic.
That doesn’t mean that 66 is the magic number. Before you go around quoting that 66 day number, it’s important to take a look at the details of the study.
First, 66 was the average across all participants. The amount of days it took ranged from 18 to 254 (which was the projected time for one person).
That’s a big difference from person to person. Also, the habits being performed weren’t all the same. So not everyone in the study was trying to form a flossing habit.
However, there are at least two great tips to be gathered from the study.
1. Formation Factors
When talking about how long it takes to form a habit, there are two main factors. The person forming the habit and how complex the habit is.
The Individual – People differ in how quickly they form habits. More interestingly, they also saw that some people develop stronger habits than others.
Everyone is different. You and your friend may be trying to form the same habit, but it’s going to take one of you less time to do it.
The researchers don’t really discuss how this happens or why. But the wide variation in the data proves one thing. We’re all wired differently.
Habit Complexity – Activities that are simple and easier to perform will become automatic more quickly. They will also become a stronger habit faster than more complex activities.
For example, drinking a glass of water in the morning will become a habit faster than jogging before work. This seems pretty intuitive, but it’s nice to see the data to back it up.
Some habits are just going to be harder to form than others.
The other great takeaway was the role of consistency.
Consistency was key. This means that missing a day didn’t adversely affect their habit formation. Regardless of whether it was was missed in the beginning, middle, or end of the study.
So don’t freak out if you miss a day. Some people will take it as a sign of failure which immediately crashes their motivation. And then they give up. Just don’t keep missing days, which will stop it from becoming automatic.
Another key point was that early repetitions of the activity produced that largest increases in automatic behavior. So when trying to form a new habit, the early stages of performing the behavior are important.
Even though you may be someone that takes awhile to form a habit that’s fine. The more time that passes the stronger that habit will be and the more automatic it’ll become.
Sure, you’ll run into obstacles in your schedule. Life will find a way to interfere with your habit formation and make it less convenient. But be consistent and know that setbacks are normal. If you keep after it, you’ll get there.
Getting After It
A word of caution.
The study was on forming new habits, not getting rid of old ones.
Trying to get rid of an old habit is not the same. Just know that getting rid of an old habit is harder than forming a new one. It takes different methods and I’ll cover it in another article.
However, when trying to form a new habit, I wouldn’t focus on a set amount of days. 66 days could be a rough guideline, but that’s about it.
The reason being, is that it some people stop. They will do a thirty day challenge and just quit. They feel they’ve accomplished their goal and reached the finish line.
Habits, however, are not goals. It’s not something you stop doing. Habits, by their definition, are something you continue to do.
So instead of focusing on the amount of day, focus on the process. Find the enjoyment in the activity and why it’s personally rewarding. This will give you the motivation to continue doing it.
Forming habits may not be easy, but there are ways you can set yourself up for success. How you plan, how you stay motivated, and how you implement your habit will all play a role in how successful you are.
Even if you fail at first, you should absolutely try again.Once the activity is firmly ingrained in that noggin’, you can move on to the next habit so you can have a happier, healthier life.