How long does it take to change a habit?
If you think it’s 21 days, because you’ve read that stated as a fact somewhere, there’s some good news, and some, perhaps, more sobering news.
So first the myth-busting…
Contrary to what you might have read, if you want to make a life change, after 21 days you do not magically have a new habit on autopilot.
I know, wouldn’t that be wonderful. But it isn’t so… except for maybe a few people and they’re as rare as hen’s teeth. Here’s why…
- We’re not all the same
You’re unique, I’m unique. So why would it take us all 21 days to form a habit? When scientists have looked at habit formation they have discovered it takes people very different time periods to adopt the same new habit. Just 18 days was the least but the average was 66 and the other end of the spectrum was more than 250! So have patience, there’s nothing wrong with you. You are you, in all your glorious uniqueness.
2. ‘Failing’ isn’t failing, it’s just another step on the ladder
If you slip back/up/over in this quest to form a new habit, that is not the end of your new habit’s potential. You’ve just learned something. And that is all.
Look at what happened objectively. Shake off any emotional attachment to this moment and see it for what it is, a miss-take. Just like your favourite film, creating a habit is made up of scenes and there will be habit challenges. Heard of Jackie Chan, the martial arts comedy film actor? He’s legendary for retakes; 2,900 in one film, apparently! The director Stanley Kubrick is said to have reshot one scene in The Shining 148 times. So if you fall off your healthy eating plan for one day, remember Jackie Chan. He doesn’t consider himself any less of a human being because he doesn’t nail it first go; neither should you.
Or put simply; stop catastrophising!
3. Not all habits are created equally
Some habits are a lot harder to change than others. Scientists have been delving into habit formation and change for a long time and they’ve discovered the truth is much less clear cut than we’ve been led to imagine.
Take flossing (teeth, not the dance)… UK scientists looked at two scenarios for introducing a new habit. One group were told to floss after hanging up their shower towel. Once they’d flossed their teeth they could then clean them. The other group were instructed to floss after cleaning their teeth. Both groups followed instruction during the monitoring period. But those who stuck with the habit, when the scientists followed up afterwards, were in the latter group. The scientists think that’s because the new habit was tagged on to a related, already established health habit. Establishing autopilot is easier for the brain if it’s like ‘apple + pear’ (i.e. really similar) rather than ‘cauliflower + pear’ (not similar).
So if you want to create a new habit, tag it on to one you already have that fits it.
4. Your circumstances for giving up can be different
One smart academic pointed out that walking and texting becomes very easy to give up if you’ve been hit by a car while doing this and had your leg broken. It’s funny how a near death experience can ramp up our determination.
5. Motivation is your starter; obsession is your finish post driver
If you want to succeed in habit changing, amplify your ‘motivation’ until it’s a more like burning obsession. Why? Motivation is a great starter, but it’s not going to propel you onwards when the doing gets tough. And the going will get tough. You’ve got to shrug off the challenges if you want it. Change pushes all sorts of buttons you might not be ready for…. Yet. Here’s a tip evolved from podcaster and author, Tim Ferriss’ fear facing technique.
Plan for all the things that can go wrong along your quest journey. Write them out. All of them. You know yourself; what are the weak spots that could trip you up? Then write out what you’re going to do when those scenarios come up. See yourself there, meeting your hurdle and clearing it with ease. Trying to cut back on drinking but you know you’re a ‘pleaser’ and don’t like feeling ‘different’? Practice what you’ll say when someone offers you a drink and you don’t want alcohol. What’s your reason for refusing wine? What’s your new non-alcohol drink? Practice until it feels natural. Visualise the scenes.
As a hypnotherapist, I can help you ‘give up’ a habit relatively quickly, but I can’t be there when you’re tempted at every turn so I ask clients to come to a session with a full list of their Achilles heels and I weave their positive actions into their programming recording so when the hurdle emerges they know what to do. And with their recording, they’ve rehearsed it so many times it feels like a familiar success.
Knowing all of the above is going to give you a strong head start in meeting your goals – happy habit forming.
And if you have great tips for breaking bad habits or taking up new ones, I’d love to hear them. Drop them in the comments below.
PS Oh by the way – the 21 days to create a habit myth? It originated with a plastic surgeon who ‘noticed’ it took people ‘about 21 days’ to get used to their new feature. No research. No control groups. Just one guy’s opinion. Yup, about as factual as lemmings committing mass suicide. No. They don’t. Although they will apparently eat each other if they get really hungry. Nice.
Further reading and references
(Judah, G., Gardner, B., & Aunger, R. (2013). Forming a flossing habit: an exploratory study of the psychological determinants of habit formation. British journal of health psychology, 18(2), 338-353.
Fear setting: the most powerful exercise I do every month
Here’s How long It really takes to break a habit
Lemming Suicide Myth: Disney film faked bogus behaviour