How long does it take to make a habit?

Does it take 21 days to make a habit?

Most people tend to believe it takes 21 days to build a habit.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. You might have heard about this as well.  A friend might have mentioned it to you, and you might even have to admit you’ve gone along with it as well. It’s a popular belief because it’s sounds doable, easy to remember, and we all like to accept and hold on to ideas that seem doable to us. It gives us hope. Unfortunately, it isn’t as simple or straightforward as that.

So how long, then?

The honest (and probably highly annoying) answer is this: it all depends. Only a few researchers have tried to properly look at this habit formation question in real-world settings. Most experts who tend to write about habit formation like to refer to this study done by University College London. Its main conclusion is that people took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days to form a new action automatically, or on average about 2 months. How long it took for an action to become automatic however varied from person to person and was dependent on the complexity of the action.

Behaviour change is context dependent

In other words, behaviour change is context dependent.

Which makes sense if you think about it. We all face a different context, no situation is alike. We have different starting points, different support networks, and different obstacles we face to overcome our challenges. Taken this in consideration, when a behaviour becomes automatic depends on this complex context.

J and M Villatte (2013) ACBS Boot Camp Reno

To make a habit stick, it’s easier to drink a glass of water every day than to run 3 miles. It’s less of a challenge to complete 5 push-ups every time after you went to the loo, then to visit the gym every day. Some habits simply require more effort to maintain than others.

Likewise, some of us have an accountability buddy, a friend, or a partner in place who pick us up when it’s starts to go horribly wrong. Others do not have a safety net, which overall makes it a bit more difficult.

Or how about this one, some people perform their habit always in the same environment, after the same trigger. For example, the push-up example after having been to the loo. The environment is pretty much the same (maybe different bathrooms), so is the trigger (flush the toilets or after washing your hands). If your trigger and environment are the same, your behaviour becomes automatic sooner because of the consistency. Other people don’t have that structure in place, so it might take them longer to build consistency over time.

There are many more little tricks and nifty elements you can put in place that will make it more likely that you stick to a new habit. Whether you build in these support mechanisms or not, influence how likely you stay committed to do the behaviour.

Ask yourself a different question

However, the overall point I’m trying to make here is that you need to stop asking yourself how long it takes to make a habit, as it’s totally the wrong question to start off with. A slightly better question to ask is how many repetitions does it take it form a new habit. As it’s actually the rate at which you perform the desired behaviour that matters, not time passing.

But it’s still not the right question.

Because if you look at that question very carefully, you can understand that it will put you in a very limited frame of mind.

How long does it take to make a habit?

Looking carefully at that question, repeating it to yourself, what does that sound like to you?

To me, it sounds like how much do I need to do? How much is enough?

You see? It almost sounds as if you’re about to start some kind of boring chore. Something that’s being forced upon you. That’s not a very empowering approach, is it?

Need to do vs. Willing to do

Rather than asking yourself how much you need to do, ask yourself how much you’re willing to do to make it a success.  Realise that in this mindset there is no finish line because this is supposedly something you embrace and are eager to want to pick up for the rest of your life. A chore then suddenly becomes a lifestyle, which also shifts the responsibility. It doesn’t really matter when a behaviour becomes automatic, what matters is that you continue to commit to doing the action because it’s important to you.

Ask yourself how much I am willing to do to keep healthy/organised/close to those you love/etc? What is a realistic starting point, so I can work slowly but steadily towards the end goal that I have in mind? Start small, start shaping the behaviour, and gain momentum.

Goal: run a half-marathonGoal: Get up at 7am every morning
Very easyPut on running shoesBe home by 11pm every night
EasyPut on running shoes and walk for 5 minSwitch off all devices by 9pm
ModerateWalk 5,000 stepsBe in bed by 10pm every night
HardRun 5KGet up at 8am every day
Very hardRun half-marathonGet up at 7am every day
Habit shaping: two examples

So how long does it take to make a habit?

Asking yourself how long does it take to make a habit is the wrong question to start off with. It puts you in a limited mindset as you start to perceive your habit as a chore, just another thing you need to do. Rather than asking yourself how much you need to do, ask yourself how much you’re willing to do to make your overall objective (having a loving relationship, feeling energetic, etc.) a success. Success has no finish line, success is a continuous process. So find an empowering habit that continues to serve your overall objective. Experiment with it and notice if it works. Switch to another habit if you have to. As it’s often not specific the habit you want to be automatic, it’s the lifestyle you’re hoping to achieve.


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