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Last Updated on March 20, 2018

Science Tells You How Long It Takes to Break a Habit

Science Tells You How Long It Takes to Break a Habit

Habits arise through a process of triggering, actions, and rewards.[1] A circumstance triggers an action. When you get a reward from the action, you continue to do that.

If you aren’t intentional about actions and rewards, you’ll develop bad habits. These lead to self-sabotage, failure, and poor health. On the other hand, good habits enable health, happiness, and dream-fulfillment.

So how long does it take to break a habit? Some say 21 days, some say approximately a month. What is the real answer?

How long it takes to break a habit

There’s no magic number of repetitions that’ll get you to internalize the habits you want. Researchers have proposed several different ways of understanding habit formation.

The 21-day rule (or myth)

One of the earliest and most popular pieces of literature on the subject is Psycho-Cybernetics (1960) by Maxwell Maltz. Dr. Maltz who was a plastic surgeon wanted to understand how people viewed themselves. In particular, he was curious about how long it took for patients to get used to changes he made during surgery.

Based on observing his patients and reflecting on his own habits, he determined that it took at least 21 days for people to adjust. He used this information as the basis for many “prescriptions” in his self-help oriented Psycho-Cybernetics.[2]

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Since then, self-help gurus have latched onto the idea of taking 21-days to change habits. People began to forget that he said ‘a minimum of about 21 days’ instead of ‘it takes 21 days to form a new habit.’

Give yourself a month?

Another popular belief in self-help culture states that habits take 28 to 30 days to form.

One proponent of this rule, Jon Rhodes, suggests:[3]

“You must live consciously for 4 weeks, deliberately focusing on the changes that you wish to make. After the 4 weeks are up, only a little effort should be needed to sustain it.”

This was a generally agreed-upon figure, but the 21-day rule popularized by readers of Maltz was more appealing to many people because it was easy to understand, and it was faster than the general 28-30 rule.

If you want to know more about the myths of how long it takes to break a habit, check out this video:

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The time-frame for changing habits varies?

While the 21 and 28-day rules appeal to our desire to change quickly, a 2009 study from University College London suggests that the window for change can be much wider. The research, published in The European Journal of Social Psychology, followed habit-formation in 96 people over a 12-week period.

The UCL study looked at automaticity, which is how quickly people engaged in the actions they wanted to turn into habits. Researchers explained:[4]

As behaviours are repeated in consistent settings they then begin to proceed more efficiently and with less thought as control of the behaviour transfers to cues in the environment that activate an automatic response: a habit.

The amount of time that it took for actions to become habits varied. Participants anywhere between 18 and 254 days to form a habit. The average number of days needed to achieve automaticity was 76 days.

Make habits to break habits

Understanding the connection between forming new habits and getting rid of old ones makes the process easier.

Dr. Elliot Berkman, Director, Social and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory, Department of Psychology, University of Oregon, states:[5]

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“It’s easier to start doing something new than to stop doing something habitual without a replacement behavior.”

Quitting something cold-turkey is tough because you’ve wired yourself to want to do it. For example, quitting smoking is challenging beyond a physical nicotine addiction. The ritual of how a person prepares to smoke is another aspect that makes it hard to quit. In order to do away with this bad habit, the person needs to find something to fill the void left by the smoking ritual. The same goes for quitting drinking.

Look beyond time

There’s such a wide range in the amount of time it can take for someone to turn an action into a habit. That’s because time isn’t the only factor you have to think about when it comes to changing behaviors. Dr. Thomas Plante, Director, Spirituality & Health Institute, Psychology Department, Santa Clara University and Adjunct Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University School of Medicine explains:

“One important issue is how strongly do you really want to break the habit in question. Second, how established is the problem habit? It is easier to break a new habit than an old one. Third, what are the consequences of not breaking the habit?”

It’s one thing to make a generic goal to exercise more, but if you thoroughly enjoy being a couch potato, it’s going to be harder to get into the exercise habit. If you’ve had a bad habit for a long time, it’s much harder to ditch it because you’ve had more repetitions of that behavior.

If exercising more won’t do much to change your life, you might find it tough to be active. On the other hand, if your doctor tells you that you won’t live to see your child’s 18th birthday unless you start moving, you have more incentive to change.

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Plante also notes that people who tend to be obsessive and those who struggle with addiction may have a harder time breaking habits than the average person.

Set aside time to change

The most powerful changes don’t happen overnight, and they probably won’t happen in 21 days. Set aside at least two months to change, but understand that altering habits is different for everyone. If you’ve had the habit for a long time, or you have to break an addiction or obsession, you may need more time.

We all make changes at different speeds based on lots of variables. The intention behind your actions, your ability to interrupt negative patterns, and the possible consequences of changing (or not changing) can also affect the time it takes adjust your habits.

Regardless of how long it takes, tackling bad habits and replacing them with good ones is essential for you to live your best life. Bad habits can keep you from achieving your full potential. They can make you sick, unproductive, and unhappy. The worst habits can even cost you your relationships and your life. Good habits set you up for success all-around.

Your health and wellness, your ability to connect with others, and your ability to live out your dreams start with good habits. If you’re ready to make changes, learn more about breaking bad habits by checking out How to Program Your Mind to Kick the Bad Habit

Featured photo credit: Freepik via freepik.com

Reference

[1]Habits for Wellbeing: What is a habit, how do they work, and how can I change them?
[2]Maxwell Maltz: The New Psycho Cybernetics
[3]Selfgrowth.com: Change a habit in 28 days
[4]European Journal of Social Psychology: How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world
[5]Hopes and Fears: How long does it really take to break a habit?

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Published on July 17, 2018

How Productive People Compartmentalize Time to Get the Most Done

How Productive People Compartmentalize Time to Get the Most Done

I’ve never believed people are born productive or organized. Being organized and productive is a choice.

You choose to keep your stuff organized or you don’t. You choose to get on with your work and ignore distractions or you don’t.

But one skill very productive people appear to have that is not a choice is the ability to compartmentalize. And that takes skill and practice.

What is compartmentalization

To compartmentalize means you have the ability to shut out all distractions and other work except for the work in front of you. Nothing gets past your barriers.

In psychology, compartmentalization is a defence mechanism our brains use to shut out traumatic events. We close down all thoughts about the traumatic event. This can lead to serious mental-health problems such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) if not dealt with properly.

However, compartmentalization can be used in positive ways to help us become more productive and allow us to focus on the things that are important to us.

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Robin Sharma, the renowned leadership coach, calls it his Tight Bubble of Total Focus Strategy. This is where he shuts out all distractions, turns off his phone and goes to a quiet place where no one will disturb him and does the work he wants to focus on. He allows nothing to come between himself and the work he is working on and prides himself on being almost uncontactable.

Others call it deep work. When I want to focus on a specific piece of work, I turn everything off, turn on my favourite music podcast The Anjunadeep Edition (soft, eclectic electronic music) and focus on the content I intend to work on. It works, and it allows me to get massive amounts of content produced every week.

The main point about compartmentalization is that no matter what else is going on in your life — you could be going through a difficult time in your relationships, your business could be sinking into bankruptcy or you just had a fight with your colleague; you can shut those things out of your mind and focus totally on the work that needs doing.

Your mind sees things as separate rooms with closable doors, so you can enter a mental room, close the door and have complete focus on whatever it is you want to focus on. Your mind does not wander.

Being able to achieve this state can seriously boost your productivity. You get a lot more quality work done and you find you have a lot more time to do the things you want to do. It is a skill worth mastering for the benefits it will bring you.

How to develop the skill of compartmentalization

The simplest way to develop this skill is to use your calendar.

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Your calendar is the most powerful tool you have in your productivity toolbox. It allows you to block time out, and it can focus you on the work that needs doing.

My calendar allows me to block time out so I can remove everything else out of my mind to focus on one thing. When I have scheduled time for writing, I know what I want to write about and I sit down and my mind completely focuses on the writing.

Nothing comes between me, my thoughts and the keyboard. I am in my writing compartment and that is where I want to be. Anything going on around me, such as a problem with a student, a difficulty with an area of my business or an argument with my wife is blocked out.

Understand that sometimes there’s nothing you can do about an issue

One of the ways to do this is to understand there are times when there is nothing you can do about an issue or an area of your life. For example, if I have a student with a problem, unless I am able to communicate with that student at that specific time, there is nothing I can do about it.

If I can help the student, I would schedule a meeting with the student to help them. But between now and the scheduled meeting there is nothing I can do. So, I block it out.

The meeting is scheduled on my calendar and I will be there. Until then, there is nothing I can do about it.

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Ask yourself the question “Is there anything I can do about it right now?”

This is a very powerful way to help you compartmentalize these issues.

If there is, focus all your attention on it to the exclusion of everything else until you have a workable solution. If not, then block it out, schedule time when you can do something about it and move on to the next piece of work you need to work on.

Being able to compartmentalize helps with productivity in another way. It reduces the amount of time you spend worrying.

Worrying about something is a huge waste of energy that never solves anything. Being able to block out issues you cannot deal with stops you from worrying about things and allows you to focus on the things you can do something about.

Reframe the problem as a question

Reframing the problem as a question such as “what do I have to do to solve this problem?” takes your mind away from a worried state into a solution state, where you begin searching for solutions.

One of the reasons David Allen’s Getting Things Done book has endured is because it focuses on contexts. This is a form of compartmentalization where you only do work you can work on.

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For instance, if a piece of work needs a computer, you would only look at the work when you were in front of a computer. If you were driving, you cannot do that work, so you would not be looking at it.

Choose one thing to focus on

To get better at compartmentalizing, look around your environment and seek out places where you can do specific types of work.

Taking your dog for a walk could be the time you focus solely on solving project problems, commuting to and from work could be the time you spend reading and developing your skills and the time between 10 am and 12 pm could be the time you spend on the phone sorting out client issues.

Once you make the decision about when and where you will do the different types of work, make it stick. Schedule it. Once it becomes a habit, you are well on your way to using the power of compartmentalization to become more productive.

Comparmentalization saves you stress

Compartmentalization is a skill that gives you time to deal with issues and work to the exclusion of all other distractions.

This means you get more work done in less time and this allows you to spend more time with the people you want to spend more time with, doing the things you want to spend more time doing.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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