They say it takes 21 – 28 days to form a habit. If you’ve ever tried to make a habit, break a habit or change a habit, you probably know that there’s more to it than that. If changing a habit were that easy, overeaters would all be thin, alcoholics would never relapse, and everyone would be up early enough to eat a healthy breakfast before work.
Habits come about through repetition, the more we repeat an action, the more engrained it becomes in our brain, the easier it is to do this action the next time. Once a habit is formed, breaking a habit is a little more tricky, those brain pathways are already established and it’s going to take a concerted effort to change them.
There’s no scientific reason why it would take three weeks to break an old habit or make a new habit. The 21-day thing seems to have been started by a 1970s self-help book and it’s stuck ever since.
Depending on your unique physical and psychological make-up, it could take three weeks, five days, nine months, or longer..
But there are some steps you can take to increase your chances of success:
- Take small, manageable steps. Don’t try to do everything at once. (So, instead of “I’m going to exercise every day,” start with “I’m going to exercise twice a week.”)
- Change one habit at a time. (Instead of “I’m going to quit eating junk food, start exercising, and go to sleep at 10 p.m. instead of 2 a.m.,” start with “I’m going to quit eating junk food.”)
- Write down the habit you want to change, and write down specific actions to achieve that goal. (Rather than writing “I will exercise,” write, “I will start walking 30 minutes twice a week, on Monday and Thursday, and I will wake up at 7am, so I can walk before work on those days.”)
- Repeat the behaviour you’re aiming for as often as you can. The more a behaviour is repeated, the more likely it is that it will become “instinctive.”