What Is A Habit?

Habits are repeated patterns of behavior, usually performed as a result of subconscious triggers. Typically, habits follow a cycle of psychological cues that the person with the habit is unable to pick up on. First, there tends to be a trigger like a place, time of day, or feeling, followed by a routine response (the behavior), resulting in a sense of reward that's consciously acknowledged or not. Scientists believe bad habits are one of the drawbacks to human neuroplasticity - the brain's ability to change its physical wiring and structure based on a person's experiences, emotions, and thoughts. Basically, your brain is flexible enough to create neuronal connections based on day-to-day behaviors, which is both a good thing and bad thing. It means you're able to take the same routes to and from work every day without having to think about it, but it also means your brain may have you inexplicably biting your nails when you get stressed out.

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How To Break Bad Habits

Experts agree that the most effective way to break a bad habit is to replace it with another one. According to neuroscientist Elliot Berkman, it's a lot easier to start doing something new rather than quit a habitual behavior cold turkey. For example, nicotine substitutes like chewing gum work better than the patch, since you're replacing an action with an action.

People trying to break a habit also have to be authentically motivated to change, so habit-breakers will be more successful if the habit they're trying to quit is competing against their set of values. It's important to continually remind yourself why you're resisting the habit and rejecting the feeling of reward you gain from it. Find out what your triggers are, and if possible, remove those triggers from your environment. Another trick to breaking a habit is to actively reduce stress. Habits can be coping mechanisms for stress, and it will be easier to devote mental energy to changing your behavior without added layers of tension.

Other tips and tricks:

  • Surround yourself with supportive people rather than those who will encourage your former behavior or not take your attempts to drop your habit seriously.
  • Improve your state of mind naturally through exposure to sunlight, exercising, etc. to reduce stress.
  • Stay alert! The less attention you're paying to your actions, the more opportunity your brain has to begin operating on autopilot and revert you to your old behaviors.
  • Don't give up! It's normal to have small setbacks and your progress does not restart at zero if this happens! Missing a few days has no effect on your potential success.

Very longheld habits are actually entrenched on a neural level, but those structures in the brain can be re-written, so don't stop trying!

woman standing outside smoking

How Long Does It Take To Break Bad Habits?

Many will be familiar with the old lore that it takes 21 days to break a habit. The good news for those of you who've tried to break habits in the past only to be disappointed on Day 22 is that the 21 days hypothesis is based on a misunderstanding. The bad news is that it usually takes longer (sometimes much longer) to break a habit than just three weeks.

The 21-day myth can be traced back to a book published way back in 1960 called Psycho-Cybernetics. The author, Maxwell Maltz, was a plastic surgeon in the 1950s when he started noticing an interesting pattern in his patients. His observation was that it took 21 days for his patients to adjust to their new bodies, whether it was a patient's new face after a nose job or the amputation of a limb. Maltz included in his book that it took a minimum of 21 days to break a habit, and his book went on to sell 30 million copies. Unfortunately, over the course of half a century, some details from the book have been lost in translation. For one thing, Maltz had said a minimum of 21 days, not exactly 21 days. The other problem was that Maltz was just making an observation based on his experience as a doctor, he wasn't trying to claim 21 was some magic number, even though decades later that's precisely the misinformation that would circulate.

The real answer is, unfortunately, more complicated than throwing out any set number of days. It all depends on the person, the habit, how long the person's had the habit, and how willing they are to actually break it. Experts agree that those who genuinely want to break a habit are more likely to be successful than people who are being pressured by friends or family.

male jogger tying shoe

How To Form New Habits

Charles Duhigg's highly influential The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business recommends establishing a "keystone" habit, a deliberate behavior or replacement habit that creates a chain of positive effects in a person's life. For example, starting a food journal leads to noticing patterns of unhealthy eating that would previously go unobserved, which leads to better-planned meals, which leads to weight loss and improved health.

Understanding the hard-wired neurological cycle behind habits will help you in forming new ones. In Duhigg's book, he refers to a "Habit Loop", comprised of a cue, routine, and reward system that solidifies habits in the brain. To establish a new habit, pick a time, occurrence, or feeling and set it up as your cue. Determine the action you want to follow the cue, and reward yourself in some way for following through. The hardest part is convincing your brain that there will consistently be a reward if you persevere in your new routine, but once your brain subconsciously makes that connection and believes you, the habit will follow.

How Long Does It Take To Form New Habits?

In 2009, researchers at University College London, in the U.K. published a study in the European Journal of Social Psychology on how habits are formed. The research team observed the habits of 96 subjects over the course of 12 weeks, asking them to pick a new habit and report daily on whether they successfully performed that task and how automatic it felt. The median amount of time it took participants to implement their new habit was just over two months - 66 days on average. To be clear, 66 days is not an exact deadline that means you have failed if your habit hasn't formed by then, it is only a determined average. Researchers reported that the range of time it took participants to establish their habit was from 18 to 254 days, and surprisingly, that missing a day or two didn't actually have a significant impact on progress.

So for the average person, it will probably take between two and eight months to properly form a new habit from scratch. But again, this depends on the individual, the complexity of the habit, and their discipline in working towards the habit.

woman eating healthy lunch at her desk

Important Takeaways

It's not easy to break a habit, but it's also not impossible. The three most important takeaways to remember in your quest to break a habit are:
1) You are more likely to succeed in breaking a habit if you replace it with a new one.
2) New habits are most successfully formed when the brain learns to anticipate a reward following a behavior.
3) Current research suggests new habits take - on average - 66 days to form, though it can certainly take longer. There is no magic formula, but persevere and you will see results!

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