How Long Does it Really Take to Form a New Habit?

I get a bit frustrated when the so common, but false, idea that it takes 21 days to form a habit is regurgitated.

There are two main reasons for my hostility towards spreading this false notion:-

  1. It sets false expectations - ​"I'll just commit to this new positive ritual for three weeks and then it'll become automatic and I won't have to try so hard"...  

    The harsh reality is that it'll take at least 3 times this long for a simple habit and a helluva lot longer for a larger, more difficult habit. 

    Any journey where expectations vastly underestimates reality commonly leads to a rude awakening, followed by abrupt failure.

  2. Aren't we focusing on the wrong thing, here?  - We're building lifelong habits, not those with a start and end date.

    We're investing time, energy and willpower to build positive habits that will have a lasting effect on our lives.  We need to be focused on the bigger picture. Habits are built relentlessly, indefinitely, continually and without a finish line.

    I find this type of question to be indicative of someone who is not thinking about habits in a healthy way...  

    ...Kinda like the budding entrepreneur that asks "how long does it take to make $x,xxx per month"...Dude, you're asking the wrong questions.

With all that said, I'd like to now play devil's advocate to my own rant...

I'm allowed to do that, because this is my blog! 

So the counterargument:- It's good to see scientific evidence that supports the idea that in the world of habits, you gotta take things slow and steady...

So, let me provide you with said evidence ;)​

So How Long Does it Take to Form a New Habit?

A study called "How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world" set out to answer this question. 

Details of the Habit Study

  • 96 volunteers chose an eating, drinking or activity behaviour to carry out daily in the same context (for example ‘after breakfast’) for 12 weeks.
  • Each participant filled out a questionnaire that contained a number of questions designed to determine whether the behavior had become habitual on a daily basis.

And what were the results?

Firstly, the number of days required for the habit to form ranged from 18 to 254 days.  On average it took 66 days.

Two important conclusions can be drawn from this:-

  1. Habit formation can take a really long time
  2. The time it takes can vary wildly and is likely subjective and dependent on the size and difficulty of the habit in question

There are some other valuable insights from the study:-

  1. ​Missing a day didn't seem to materially affect the habit formation process (so skipping a day isn't catastrophic)
  2. The more consistent the participants were, the better they fitted the habit model (that behaviors become easier to perform and more automatic over time)

So What Does This Mean for You?

We don't really have an accurate way of estimating how long any new habit will take to form.  It's likely dependent on a lot of variables, including the neuro plasticity of your brain, the size and complexity of the habit in question and so on...

It can take as little as a few weeks, but unlikely.  On average you're looking at 66 days.  In some cases it can take the best part of a year.

What we do know, is this:- If you you want to ingrain a habit into your life, then it's really a question of deciding, setting up your habit system and then following through.  

The longer you repeat the activity, the more chance you have of it becoming habitual.  If you just keep on keeping on, then it will eventually become habitual.

If you miss a day, don't worry, just be sure to jump back onto the schedule the next day.​ It won't make any noticeable difference.  Clearly, this doesn't mean you can miss one day in every three, but one-offs are fine.

In short:- 

  1. Decide what habit to ingrain
  2. Commit to the schedule
  3. Who cares how long it takes - just keep going.
  4. If you miss a day, don't worry, but be sure as heck to nail the next day.
  5. Focus on the action of doing.  The result will take care of itself.

Good luck nailing those habits!

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