How Long it Takes to Form a Habit
Forming a new habit takes sustained and consistent repetition. This is hard to balance with all of the daily demands of life. The popular myth is that it only takes 21 days to form a habit. In reality, there is a lot of variation in the rate at which different people form habits. For some it can take as long as 250 days, for others it can be as quick as 18. The average length of time amongst this variation is 66 days.
Tips for Habit-Forming Success
- Start while on vacation. Some psychologists claim that when trying to form a new habit, starting on vacation may make it stick faster because your brain is responding to a different environment or a different routine, so it is in a heightened state of receptivity.
- Prioritize the first four days. The first few days of trying to adopt your new habit are the most important. After a few days of consistent repetition, it is okay to miss a day here and there.
- Examine your motivation. Is this new habit behavior that you actually desire to integrate into your life or is it something that you think others think is good behavior? You are much more likely to succeed if you are building a habit that you genuinely think will improve your life.
- Build Accountability. Telling your friends and family about your desire to adopt a new habit can help with accountability.
- Along these same lines, there is some evidence demonstrating that putting your desire for a new habit into the form of resolution (that you share somewhere, maybe on social media, with your friends or family, or even just writing on a note on your mirror) makes you more likely to be successful.
- One at a time. Try to only form one new habit at a time. It is easier to adjust your behavior when there is less to focus on.
- Imagine the process and the outcome. Dreaming is a part of the process of building a new behavior. If you want to spend more time painting, for example, take the time to imagine yourself painting and the paintings you will create when you finally do spend more time painting. How will you feel while you are painting? How will you feel when you look at the painting(s) that you have completed? This will help to motivate you to get started and stay committed to building your painting habit.
- Practice is key. The more you practice your new habit, the closer it comes to being a “habitual” behavior. When you falter in your practice, which you will remember that practice is not perfection, and one mistake does not mean you are not committed to this process.
How Long it Takes to Break a Habit
Breaking a habit is also hard work and unfortunately, it is often accompanied by more negative emotions like shame or stress than the excitement and novelty of adopting a new behavior. Research suggests that the amount of time it takes to break an old habit is similar to the amount of time it takes to form a new habit, somewhere in the vast range of 18-250 days, with an average of around 66 days.
Tips for Habit-Breaking Success
- Don’t just quit, replace. The number one piece of advice to ease the difficulty of breaking an old habit is to replace the old behavior with a new, more desirable behavior. This gives you something new and proactive to focus on rather than solely focusing on the difficulty of stopping the other behavior. For example, I want to watch less TV, so I take note of the time of day when I usually start watching TV and I plan something else for that time (maybe taking a walk, calling a friend, or playing with my pet). This means I am breaking my TV watching habit at the same time as I add more walking into my life, or I build my relationships with my loved ones. Instead of focusing on denying my desire to watch TV, I am focusing on a new, positive behavior that I can feel good about.
- Get rid of the success-failure binary. Instead, look at it as a continuum: at one end you have a 100% breaking of the habit, leading up to that end, you have the learning and growing process that makes you more likely to get to that endpoint every day. Don’t forget, learning and growing aren’t linear! One day you may feel close to the 90% mark and the next you may feel closer to the 50% mark, and neither is better or worse, they are both a part of the process.
- Be kind to yourself. Breaking a habit is hard work. You aren’t perfect and your process won’t be either. Engaging in the habit that you are trying to break is probably going to happen along the way to breaking the habit. Don’t use it as an excuse to give up or to treat yourself badly.
- Remember that the only constant is change. If you’re struggling today, know that that feeling won’t last forever.
- Seek support. Therapy, support groups, trusted friends, and partners can all be important to seek out and rely on during the hard moments that will inevitably accompany attempts to break an old habit.
- One at a time. Try to only break (or replace) one habit at a time. It is easier to adjust your behavior when there is less to focus on.
How to Track Your Progress
Keeping track of your progress can be a helpful way to
prove to yourself that you are making headway, even when it may not feel like
it. However, it’s important to keep in mind that breaking or building a habit
is not going to be a linear process, so expect that your tracking will reflect
The basic idea of tracking your progress is to count each time you engage in the behavior, at the end of the day (or week or whatever time frame is relevant for your habit) you can see the total count, and over time you’ll be able to compare the time frames and see your progress. You can use the notes app on your phone or a piece of paper to record the count. There are also many habit-tracking apps and habit-tracking journals to choose from. Using an app, journal, or keeping your own count can be an added incentive to keep up the work because you get to see it laid out over time. You also get a little rush of emotional feedback when you record the count (this feedback can be positive or negative, depending on what/how you are tracking). It is helpful to get some immediate feedback because the process of building or breaking a habit is often a lengthy one, in which the main feedback we seek, changed behavior, can take a long time to manifest consistently. Additionally, tracking your progress in this way can sometimes illuminate certain times of day, locations, or social situations in which you are more or less likely to stick to your goals. This is helpful information for you to have as you consider when, where, and with whom to engage and how mindful to be of your goals in those settings.
Investing in You
Developing a new, beneficial habit, or breaking an old one
that no longer serves you is not an easy process, but it is worth it. It is an
investment in yourself, your own wellness, and your present and future
happiness. Don’t let the roadblocks discourage you, trust that by tracking your
habits and your progress, you are helping the Universe manifest your desires.
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