Changing your habits takes time and effort. But in actuality, how long does it take to build a habit? Here’s what science tells us about the process around habit formation.
Drinking your coffee at the exact same time each morning while you scroll through your newsfeed, taking your lunchtime stroll around the same block each day, and listening to the exact same meditation each night before drifting off…do those sound familiar? It’s true that humans are inherently creatures of habit, and most of our actions are probably on autopilot. But how long does it take to form a habit, and what should we expect if we want to break an unhealthy habit?
Before we get to how long it takes to build a habit, let’s first investigate the importance of habits in our daily lives.
Why Habits are Important
We do the same things more out of habit than for any other reason. But why? Our habits and routines rule our lives since they make life easy, comfortable, and rewarding.
Imagine if you had to think through every decision:
- Do I like coffee?
- Do I need to brush my teeth?
- Should I take my house keys with me?
Decisions take time and effort to make, so doing habitual things unconsciously is less cognitively demanding. As a result, your brain is free to focus on other tasks.
For instance, the following cues may trigger helpful automatic habits:
- Wake up = make coffee
- Bedtime = brush your teeth
- Go outdoors = grab your keys
In short, automatic habits enable you to get stuff done. The efficiency that your habits offer your brain are great, so long as the habits are adaptive and serve you well.
Conversely, habits turn into liabilities when they negatively impact your life. What should you do when you realize your current habits don’t serve you anymore and you want to change them? How do you go about creating new habits?
As a neuroscience researcher, I looked at the science behind what it really takes to build new habits and break old ones. Here’s what I found.
How Long Does It Take to Build a Habit?
Wondering how long it takes for something to become a habit? You may have heard that the magic number is 21 days. However, current science doesn’t back that up.
Instead, research by University College London concluded that the median amount of time necessary to build a new habit is 66 days.
However, it’s worth noting that the study showed a wide range of timelines for any change to become a habit. Some people were able to develop a new habit within only 18 days, while others took up to 254 days.
Other experts believe that it’s less about the time frame and how many days it takes to form a habit than the intention when it comes to building a habit. “When there is a strong desire to accomplish something, it becomes about the mindset to put it all into motion and create a long-lasting ‘habit.’ Whatever the habit is, good or bad, it comes down to whether or not someone has the real desire to accomplish it or let it go,” says Jennifer Kelman, LCSW, a JustAnswer mental health expert. It’s more about the repetition of practicing that new behavior and a determined mental outlook than a specific timeline—if you have the will to follow through, you can form that habit. That said, don’t lose faith if you don’t see the results you’d hoped for within a couple of weeks. I recommend that you consciously stick to your intended change and apply that mental determination for at least three to four months. By doing so, things should fall into place to create a new habit that lasts.
How Habits are Built
Now that you’re aware of a realistic timeline and frame of mind to work with, it may also help to understand the key elements of habit building and change.
Wanting to become a better version of yourself is something to be proud of. When we better ourselves, we have a positive impact on our lives and the lives of those around us.
Do our habits develop in childhood? Do we make choices and unconscious decisions simply to follow the crowd? How the decisions we make become habits is hotly debated.
But what’s clear from science is that habits are formed in small, incremental, and repetitive actions. The repetitive nature of these actions—in similar or consistent settings—creates a strong association between an event and a subsequent action.
In neuroscience, this lends to the idea that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” These neuronal connections create strong cues that result in the many subconscious choices we make.
In other words, if you want to change your actions and build a new habit, make sure that you have a plan to help you succeed.
For starters, generate an environment with cues that’ll remind you to make different choices. For instance, if you want to make healthier food choices but have the habit of grabbing a cookie every time you make coffee, you can plan ahead by:
- Having other snacks by the coffee machine
- Removing cookies from the kitchen counter (or your home entirely)
These changes can help ensure that next time you make coffee, you don’t grab and eat a cookie before realizing you’ve even done it (and then take it out on yourself for not sticking to your goals).
Phases of Building Habits
If you’re ready to make a change and to establish new habits, you’re in what scientists call the initiation phase. The next step is the learning phase, followed by the habit change.
That’s when you retrain your brain. The cycle can be summarized into the 3 R’s:
- Reminder (cue that triggers the behavior)
- Routine (repetition of new behavior)
- Reward (benefit from the change)
The process seems simple, but it involves the tricky period of teaching an old dog new tricks. It often leads many to stumble while attempting to make the changes they hope for. However, it’s important to remember that success is within reach.
Last but not least comes the stability phase, in which your habits become second nature.
6 Steps to Building New Habits
To ensure you succeed in your quest to become the best version of yourself, follow the six key steps of successful habit modification:
- Decide on the habit you want to change.
- Choose a simple action that you can easily incorporate into your daily life.
- Plan when, where, and how you’ll change your environment to ensure your success.
- Be consistent by repeating the new behavior every time the same situation or cue presents itself.
- Stay patient, as it’ll take time to rewire your brain and build new habits.
- Track your progress and reward yourself for any small change towards your goal.
Remember: It’s all about progress, not perfection!
Breaking vs. Building Habits
Many of the habits we want to change aren’t habits we planned for; they just happened.
But one thing is for sure: Breaking a habit is harder than creating a new one. That’s because breaking habits requires unlearning a behavior. (In neuroscience speak, the connections between the neurons that have associated one event with a particular action or outcome need to weaken.)
When breaking a habit, you can’t expect to stop it with an “all-or-nothing” approach, because you might burn out quickly and go back to the familiar habit. Instead of say, deciding to go vegan cold turkey and never looking back at meat, dairy, or animal products, start slow and over time replace the old habit with a new one you’re committed to sticking with. “Pick one day a week to eat only plant-based foods, and as you feel more energized from that healthful day of eating, it will likely turn into more days each week,” Kelman says.
By taking time to slowly build new habits to replace old ones, they might have a positive ripple effect on your other habits. For example, eating more nourishing whole foods might give you more sustainable energy, which can encourage you to get outside for more exercise, and that can then improve your sleep quality, Kelman adds.
Regardless of your goals, don’t let this fact, the time commitment, or other factors hinder your progress. Above all, it’s important to build habits that serve to benefit your overall health, which should be well worth the wait—whether it takes 66 days or otherwise.