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How To Break a Habit (And How Long Does It Take)

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Want to know how to break a habit and form new ones? Is self-sabotage keeping you from the life you want? And how long does it take to change and establish a new behavior? 

How to break a habit and how long does it take - featured image for blog post
How to break a habit and how long does it take

Habits are behaviors that we do regularly, often without thinking. They can be good, like brushing your teeth or working out, or bad, like nail-biting, watching tv (in excess), or slouching. And breaking unhealthy habits or unwanted behavior is rarely easy, but it can definitely be done.

They say it takes about 21 days to break a habit. But is that the magic number or just a myth? The key is to be patient and consistent when breaking free from an old habit or pattern. You need to find things that you enjoy about the new conscious behavior and healthier practice and involve friends or family to help keep you accountable.

You can do many things to increase your motivation and make breaking the habit easier. Keep reading for tips on how to break a habit successfully.

Disclaimer: Please note that I’m not a mental health expert; these are just a few tips that might help you get rid of unwanted habits. If you have an addiction, please turn to a mental health professional. 

What are habits?

Habits are behaviors that we do regularly, automatically, and often without thinking. They can be good or bad, depending on the habit.

Habits are developed over time through repetition. 

Some habits can be helpful: like cleaning dishes right after you’ve finished eating or making sure you get enough sleep.

Others can be harmful: being constantly late for appointments or spending too much money on unnecessary things. 

And some of the worst habits can cost you your job or, even worse, your life.

Why you shouldn’t call habits good or bad

Habits, by definition, are behaviors that we do regularly. So whether they’re “good” or “bad” is subjective.

Try using terms like “helpful” and “unhelpful” or “useful” and “not useful.”

I like to say that good habits serve a purpose. And the bad ones don’t.

Examples of helpful and valuable habits

  • Exercise daily basis
  • Practice thoughtfulness
  • Stay in touch with friends and family
  • Get enough sleep
  • Eat healthy foods
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Take care of your appearance
  • Be organized
  • Set goals and achieve them
  • Live in the present moment

Examples of unhelpful and unuseful habits (and addictions)

  • Eating junk food
  • Drinking alcohol in excess
  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Binge-watching TV
  • Overspending
  • Procrastinating
  • Being late
  • Being short-tempered
  • Being negative

Most of us have both types of habits. And breaking a pattern can be difficult, but it’s not impossible. But how long does it take to break a habit?

How long does it take to break a habit?

So, how many days to break a habit does it take? Let’s look at the 21-day “rule” and what the research has discovered. And what is the 21/90 rule?

The 21-day rule (or is it a myth?)

You’ve probably heard that breaking a habit takes three weeks / 21 days.

This idea came from Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon who noticed it took his patients about 21 days to adjust to their new faces after plastic surgery. He wrote about his findings in his 1960 book, Psycho-Cybernetics: “it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.”

Over time, the 21-day rule became popularized as truth. But is there any scientific evidence to support it?

Researchers from University College London: 66 days

A 2009 study (How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world) published in the European Journal of Social Psychology sought to answer this question. The researchers from University College London found that it took participants anywhere from 18 to 254 days (an average of 66 days) to form new habits.

Key intakes of the research:

  • The first step in overcoming a habit is committing to change. It generally takes two months of daily repetitions for a behavior to become a habit.
  • Second, this study found that skipping single days are not as harmful in the long run when trying to develop a new habit. Early repetitions are more critical: they help us make a behavior an automatic response.

So, while there’s no definitive answer as to how long it takes to break a habit, the 21-day rule is more myth than truth. However, with patience and perseverance, anyone can break a habit.

Want to go into details about habit change? I found this article (Habit formation and change. Current opinion in behavioral sciences) with many science-based details.

The 21/90 rule

21 day habit tracker printable PDF
Printable 21 days habit tracker
90 day habit tracker printable PDF
Printable 90 days habit tracker

The 21/90 rule is another popular way to think about breaking a habit. This rule states that it takes 21 days to form a new habit and 90 days until it becomes a lifestyle.

Again, there’s no science to support this claim, but this is my favorite way to start a new habit (and break a few old behaviors).

So set aside at least two months (preferably three) when you’re ready to start altering habits that don’t serve you anymore. Habit formation is a gradual process that takes time. The 21/90 rule is actually more of a guideline than an absolute rule.

So if you try something for a few weeks and you’re making progress, but the habit doesn’t stick, don’t give up. Remember that it takes time and keep going.

Habit-forming process

So how do habits form in the first place?

There is no one simple answer to this question, as habits can form differently for different people. However, some general steps are often involved in habit formation:

There are five steps to habit formation:

  1. The desired behavior
  2. The cue or trigger
  3. The new habit
  4. The routine or set of behaviors
  5. The reward

Charles Duhigg keeps it even simpler in his book The Power of Habit. He calls it the habit loop, and it consists of three steps: the trigger, the routine, and the reward. 

Let’s take a look at each one in more detail:

  • The desired behavior can be as simple as brushing your teeth in the morning or as complicated as running a marathon. Visualize yourself achieving your goal and practicing your new habit.
  • The cue or trigger is what sparks the behavior. It could be anything from a particular time of day, an emotion, a specific place, or a person.
  • The new habit is the behavior that you want to become automatic.
  • The routine is a chain of habits. It’s what we do in response to the cues or triggers.
  • The reward is what we get from doing the behavior. It could be anything from feeling satisfaction to a sense of accomplishment.

Example #1 of how habits form: running

Desired behavior: You want to start a new habit of going for a run every day.

  • The cue or trigger might be getting up in the morning, putting on your running shoes, and heading out.
  • The habit is, of course, going for a run, and the routine is where, in what order, and how long you run.
  • The reward might be a feeling of accomplishment, a stress reduction, or improved fitness levels.

Example #2 of how habits form: eating healthy

Now let’s say you want to break the habit of eating junk food every day and eat healthy foods instead (desired behavior).

  • Your cue or trigger might be seeing a commercial for fast food on TV, eating when you’re stressed out, or having a friend always asking you out to eat (unhealthy food).
  • The new habit you want to form is to eat healthier foods instead.
  • The routine might be making a salad for lunch instead of ordering a pizza, packing snacks like fruit and nuts instead of candy bars, or cooking dinner at home instead of going out to eat.
  • And the reward might be feeling better about yourself, having more energy, or losing weight.

These are just a few examples of how habits can form. Remember, it’s different for everyone, so find what works for you and stick with it.

Tips and steps on how to break a habit

Breaking bad habits can be difficult, but it’s not impossible. If you’re determined to break a habit and replace the habitual behavior, here are some tips that might help:

1. Be aware of the triggers

Be aware of the triggers behind your habitual behaviors. Once you know what sets off your unwanted habit, you can work on avoiding those situations or activities.

Be alert also about the environmental cues that trigger your habitual behavior. Environmental cues in your surroundings prompt you to engage in a particular behavior.

Examples of environmental cues

  • seeing an advertisement for new shoes might trigger the desire to buy them
  • seeing someone else smoking a cigarette might trigger the urge to smoke one yourself
  • driving by your favorite fast food joint might trigger the urge to order a burger

2. Make a plan

Figure out how you’re going to replace the harmful habits with helpful ones. If you want to break the habit of binge-watching Netflix and get enough sleep instead, make a plan to get there. And do whatever it takes.

  • Remove the temptation. If you have a tv in the bedroom, remove it.
  • Make your bedroom as inviting as possible so that you can’t wait to get there by the end of the day.
  • Find something else to do, like reading a book, listening to a meditation, pampering yourself with a face mask, or taking a hot bath.

Tip: Use a habit tracker.

Grab one of these free printable habit trackers to create routines and follow your progress: 43 cute & free habit tracker printables to form new habits

Monthly habit tracker
Habit tracker printables

3. Substitute unhealthy behaviors

The key to breaking habits is to find replacement behavior.

Think of things you enjoy and could do instead. Write down a list of things you like to do, and then, when you feel the urge to engage in unuseful behavior, do one of the things on your list instead.

Tip: You can also use habit stacking to add a new habits to your current routine. Read more about it here: Habit stacking – What is habit stacking and how to build new routines

4. Make sure your new habits are consistent with your core values

Our core values are the things that are most important to us. They can be personal (like spending time with family) or professional (like being a good employee).

When you’re trying to break a habit, it’s important that your new habits are in line with your core values. This will help keep you motivated and on track.

5. Avoid stress

If you’re under a lot of stress, it will be difficult to break a habit. When you’re feeling overwhelmed or anxious, that’s usually when old habits start to resurface.

For example, to lose weight when you’re super stressed seems like an impossible task. The anxiousness keeps you from sleeping. The no-sleep makes you watch tv at night. The tv makes you want to snack, and going to bed finally at 3 am makes you feel like a failure and more stressed. And the vicious cycle is ready.

So try to first figure out what’s stressing you out and see if there are ways to eliminate or reduce the stress.

6. Change habits – change your environment

Research suggests that our environment plays a big role in our habits. If you’re trying to break a bad habit, surround yourself with people who support your decision and avoid places where you’re likely to be tempted.

Tip: Use the Seinfeld Strategy – “Don’t break the chain”

Print out a calendar and place it somewhere you can see it all the time. Every day when you make your new habit, you get to put a big red X on that day. The goal is to never break the chain of X’s.

The longer the chain, the more motivated you’ll be to keep going.

RELATED POST: The Seinfeld Strategy – The Simplest Way to Build Habits

The Seinfeld Method - Seinfeld Calendar
“Don’t break the chain” – The Seinfeld Strategy

Grab printable calendars here: Multiple cute & free printable calendar designs by SaturdayGift

7. Ask for support

Don’t try to do it alone. 

Talking to somebody else can be incredibly helpful for breaking bad habits. Find a friend or family member who will support you and encourage you. There are also plenty of online forums and Facebook groups that can offer you advice and encouragement when needed.

If you’re dealing with addiction or having trouble breaking a habit on your own, don’t hesitate to seek professional help.

8. Be patient

Whatever you do, remember that progress, not perfection, counts. 

Changing longstanding behaviors takes time – don’t get discouraged if you slip up occasionally.

RELATED POST: How to strive for progress not perfection – 7 simple strategies

9. Celebrate your successes

It’s important to create smaller goals to know you’re on the right track. Treat yourself every time you reach a milestone.

And when you manage to break a bad habit, celebrate your success.

Want some inspiration? Check out these 39 motivational quotes to change your habits.

Quotes about habits - inpirational habits quotes Featured Image
Quotes about habits

What causes bad habits?

Bad habits can be caused by several things, including boredom, stress, anxiety, depression, or feeling overwhelmed.

Many bad habits are coping mechanisms – ways of dealing with difficult emotions or situations. For example, smoking cigarettes might be a way to deal with stress, and eating unhealthy foods might be a way to comfort oneself when feeling down.

Bad habits might also be something you do to try and make yourself feel better in the moment. For example, procrastinating might make you feel like you’re getting things done, even though it’s actually delaying the work that needs to be done.

Why is it so hard to break a habit?

Habits are difficult to break because they’re ingrained in our daily routine. They’ve become a part of who we are and how we operate daily.

Breaking a habit requires time, effort, and willpower, which can be challenging when feeling anxious, stressed, or overwhelmed.

It’s also important to note that breaking a bad habit is frequently accompanied by feelings of discomfort. This is because the old behavior provided some sort of relief or pleasure. When trying to break a habit, you might feel like you’re missing out on something or not good enough.

These feelings can be difficult to deal with, but it’s important to remember that they’re temporary. With time and patience, you will be able to break your bad habit and form a new, healthier ones.

Conclusion

Breaking a bad habit is not easy. It takes time, effort, and patience to change longstanding behaviors. But it can be done.

The key to breaking a habit is to find things you enjoy about the new behavior and involve them in the process. This will make it easier to stick with the new routine. And while they might seem difficult to break, bad habits can be replaced with new, healthier ones.

So don’t give up whether you want to quit smoking, stop eating junk food, stop procrastinating, or binge-watching Netflix, keep working at it. and you’ll be able to change your ways for the better.


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