How long does it take to form a habit really? And how to make it easier for yourself to persist in your resolution.

How do you form a habit and how long does it take?

Who among us wouldn’t want to change habits? Who among us doesn’t make New Year’s resolutions? We promise ourselves that from Monday… from Monday onwards. But very often that magical Monday doesn’t come.

The period when most of us enthusiastically make resolutions is, of course, the New Year. January! It’s such a big Monday. Among the most popular New Year’s resolutions we can mention are healthier living, self-development and happiness, weight loss and career goals. Unfortunately, it turns out that we often can’t even make it to February in these resolutions.

And then we are back to our old habits. One might ask, why? Since the common “theory” is that it only takes 21 days to form a habit. It would seem that surviving only January would ensure our success. Let’s break this topic down. Next, you’ll find out how many days it really takes to form a habit and simple tips on how to make the process easier for yourself.

What is it like with these habits?

Probably all of us have wanted to introduce a new habit at least once in our lives. To change something, to improve something, to learn a new skill. I am tempted to say that probably most of us think about making such changes at least once and often.

That’s why programmes to change habits are so popular, as are apps to aid this process, calendars where we mark whether we have succeeded in our resolution today.

As with so many other things, we are tempted by offers to quickly create the desired habit, shortcuts and other magical solutions. The answer, however, is disappointing. There are no shortcuts. Why?

What is a habit?

Habits are actions that we do without thinking. They come easily and naturally to us. More specifically, they are our decisions and behaviours that we make automatically. Habits. Immediate reactions. It is therefore difficult for us to eradicate those habits that have already become established, and thus we need time and consistency to ingrain the new ones.

How many days does it take to form a new habit?

While it is understandable and obvious that we need repetition to form a habit, it is much more difficult to answer the question of how much time we need.

So the key question is: How many days do we need to create a new habit? In other words: how many days does it take to break a habit? Usually these habits are the hardest to create.

How many days do I need to cut down on sweets to lose weight? How many days not to smoke to break the habit for good? How many days not to sit late into the evening to be rested? And in this semantics the dog is buried. Because just formulating goals in this way poses a big problem for achieving them, but more on that later. Let’s go back to the basic question. How many days?

A habit forms in 21 days

There is, a very popular theory that we need 21 days to form a new habit. The magic 21 days and you’re done. Sounds good. It sounds very good. However, is this really the case?

Well, unfortunately, while it is very tempting, in most cases it is hardly realistic.

Why is this a tempting option? Because it promises change in a short period of time and therefore also at a relatively low cost. Such promises, despite seeming too good to be true, often convince us.

The 21-day theory is attributed to Dr Maxwell Maltz, who was a plastic surgeon in the ’50s. He observed that patients began to accept their new appearance after about 21 days. He included his observations in a book that quickly became a bestseller for a long time.

People copied what he said and came up with the theory that it takes 21 days to form a habit. In a way, he misrepresented his original words, which were – it takes a minimum of 21 days to create such a change. A nuance, but it changes a lot.

So how many days does it really take to form a habit?

Dr Maltz gives us the valuable information that in most cases it is not less than 21 days. Disappointing news, but you probably expected it. How many, then?

A study was carried out in 2009 to test this. A group of 96 people were studied for 12 weeks. Each person chose a behaviour from which they wanted to form a habit. The behaviours varied in terms of the difficulty of implementation. They were measured in terms of how systematic they were and a sense of how automatic it seemed to perform the activity. What were the results? It took respondents between 18 and 254 days to form a new habit. The time therefore varied considerably. This is influenced by the following factors: the type of habit to form (i.e. its difficulty), personality factors and circumstances affecting the consolidation of the activity. Most importantly for us, the average for the formation of a new habit was 66 days, or more than two months.

What advice does science give us to persevere in a resolution?

Once we have an answer to how long it takes to form a habit, the next question arises. How do we do it? And therein lies the ‘how’. Because the whole process is about making the change permanent, we should first of all change our mindset. Don’t think about how long I have to break away in order to achieve my goal, because in that case, we are assuming a return to old habits in advance. It is about making the change permanent. And the number of days given above refers to the creation of automation, meaning that after this time it will already be easier for us to function with our new habits. Here are some tips to help you prepare for this process effectively.

The brain does not know the word no

An important point is the reformulation of the goal. I write about reformulation straight away because most resolutions are formulated incorrectly. As in the examples above. I want to not eat sweets. I don’t want to smoke. It is said that the brain does not know the word no. To test this, do a short test: please don’t think of a pink elephant right now… Well, that’s right. And the same mechanism pulls us away from our goal when we are constantly thinking about not eating chocolate. We think about chocolate and thus cook ourselves a little hell of strenuously resisting the desire.

So refocus your goals. How?

Think long-term about change

Usually our resolutions are short-term, although we don’t consciously assume this. We do, however, assume some kind of goal, after which everything often goes back to ‘normal’, i.e. the old way. This is best seen in the example of dieting. We often think, I’m going to stay on this diet until I lose this much and that much weight, and then what? I go back to my old habits. And all the sacrifice is for nothing.

That’s why you need to change your mindset. Think about why you want to introduce this habit. What kind of person do you want to become through it in the future? What vision of yourself will creating the habit bring you closer to? I want to be a healthy person. An athletic person. To be an artist.

That is, in cognitive behavioural therapy we would say, don’t think about the goal in itself e.g. weight loss but about changing beliefs about myself, who I am, what/who I am.  Replace ‘have to’ with ‘want to’, but to do this you need to know why you want to. Working on beliefs will provide you with that answer.

Once you have found your true purpose, start thinking about yourself in this way in the present tense. I’m an artist, which is why I practise sketching. It is then natural and in line with your identity. It is therefore easier to turn such activities into a habit.

Make the habit concrete

The next step is to think about what habit will bring me closer to the vision of me from the future. This resolution should be set concretely. Here you can use the SMART method. The goal has to be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound. If, let’s say – I want to move more, what exactly will I do in this direction? For example, I will go for a 30-minute walk in the park every day before breakfast. This is already a concrete goal and we can ask ourselves whether it also fulfils the other characteristics of a well-chosen goal.

Stick the habit to other habits

What makes it much easier to do a daily resolution is to plan it before or after another habit that already exists in your routine. E.g. I will read 5 pages of a book every morning to go with my morning coffee in the kitchen. Define it as precisely as possible.

Habits must therefore be introduced slowly. Gradually. Incorporating it into every day, other habits and routines, so that it slowly becomes part of our lives. And this raises another question for me.

Does breaking the bandwidth of a daily activity cancel out the chance of forming a habit?

We have been in this situation more than once. We try to create a habit, for a few days it succeeds. Suddenly something disrupts our routine, we skip a day and what do we do next? Often we’re riding the wave, if I’ve already broken/broken once then why bother trying, I’m back to my old habits. And this represents a serious mistake. Why? The study cited earlier showed that skipping a behaviour once does not negatively affect the process of habit formation. The important thing is to get back to continuing the activity systematically as soon as possible.

So what conclusion does this offer? If you have failed one day to perform an assumed activity, do not abandon it completely. You are still on the way to your goal. The results of the study suggest that, in such a situation, you should continue with the activity for the next three days, in which case the omission will make no difference to the automation process.

Looking out for the finish line will never get you there

Now you have enough information to plan the process properly and thus increase your chances of success. Remember, however, that this is a difficult and time-consuming process. A big variable of success is circumstances. It may not be the best time in your life to make changes, which often involve disrupting our routine, making sacrifices, working on ourselves. Additionally, it is important not to make too many changes at once. Taking on too much or making goals too difficult can be discouraging. This is where the small steps method will work. Start modestly, but prioritise consistency. Monitor your results and remember that it is not the result that counts, but the sum of the daily small victories. All of them will benefit you overall. If, for example, you are measuring yourself against obesity, but fail to lose the intended weight in a set time, every small, healthy decision still contributes to your health and is in itself a victory. Even if you exercise for a few days it still brings you closer to health than not exercising at all. Therefore, don’t focus on the goal and the finish line. Appreciate the process, be intentional about it and enjoy it. Because after all, the method is not to wait for the finish line, but to make the habit a part of life and stay with us permanently.

Author: Olga Chałuda, MA, psychologist