How Long Does It Take to Break a Habit? 5 Tips and Tricks
Habits involve behaviors that are repeated so frequently that they become automatic. Our daily life is made up of habits we developed at some point. Many of our routines, such as going for a run each morning, brushing our teeth before bed, or spending time in nature every weekend, are helpful and healthy. However, many of us have unwelcome and harmful habits as well.
Bad habits are not labeled as such for no reason. However, they can hurt your mental and physical health, keep you from reaching your full potential, and put your relationships at risk.
What Do We Mean When We Talk About “Bad” Habits?
When we think of “bad” habits, we generally think of unproductive or harmful activities like browsing social media for hours, drinking excessively, smoking, hoarding, leading a sedentary lifestyle, eating junk food, and so on.
Everything from hoarding unnecessary items in your home to drinking excessively on weekends is considered a bad habit because they consume your energy, time, and money while giving no true value.
What Causes Bad Habits?
Everyone has certain bad habits that are hard to break. However, not every new activity we learn to do becomes a habit. We form habits in response to the reward they provide. These harmful behaviors are challenging to eliminate since they reinforce the reward, causing us to repeat things that make us feel good. So, habits result from reward-based learning that has three components:
- A trigger – for example, feeling hungry or stressed
- A behavior – eating food or lighting a cigarette
- A reward – feeling satisfied.
As a result, the more rewarding the behavior, the stronger the habit.
Most of our bad habits are ways of dealing with our needs, everyday life, and stress. Some unhealthy habits, such as wasting time on the internet, develop as a response to feelings of boredom or loneliness, fear of missing out (FOMO), or even deeper issues like self-limiting beliefs or fears.
Recognizing what triggers your bad habits is the first step toward breaking them. A skilled personal coach or therapist may assist you in identifying the root causes of your unhealthy behaviors and developing a plan to let go of them.
How Long Does It Take to Break a Habit?
In the 1960s, cosmetic surgeon Maxwell Maltz published his self-help book Psycho-cybernetics, saying that it took 21 days for his patients to adjust to changes in their bodies or quit a habit.
However, research suggests it takes a bit longer to change a habit. Namely, a small 2009 study found that it may take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to break a habit. Moreover, breaking a bad habit is tricky because habits are rewarding behaviors that have become automated at some point in our lives. As a result, willpower alone is usually not enough to break an unhelpful habit.
Replacing Bad Habits with is More Effective than “Breaking” Them
It is not enough to simply decide not to eat another piece of cake or to stop smoking cigarettes.
Because our brains don’t work like that, according to research, when we face triggers such as stress or excitement, the brain networks connected to willpower and self-control are the first to switch off. This is because reward-based learning is dependent on rewards rather than behavior. So when the brain’s neurotransmitter dopamine is released, it makes us want to do the same thing again, which is what causes a habit last.
Because of this, it may be easier to replace bad habits with good ones than to try to get rid of them.
5 Tips to Help You Break (and Replace) Unhealthy Habits for Good
With reward-based learning in mind, here are 5 ideas to help you break a bad habit and replace it with a good one.
Identify Your Triggers
Journaling can help you track your triggers to determine whether they follow a specific pattern. For example, you could go for a cigarette after finishing a meal. You may celebrate the end of a long week with a few glasses of wine. Or, you may always reach for a muffin after a tense office meeting.
Note when a specific habitual behavior happens, how you feel when it happens, and if there is anything else you can do to achieve the same feeling.
Identifying your triggers is the first step toward eliminating them and replacing a harmful habit with a healthy one (for example, going for a short walk instead of grabbing a muffin after a stressful meeting at work).
Have a Replacement Plan
Make a list of potential substitutes that might be used to replace undesirable habits. For example, if you want to go for a cigarette after eating, get yourself a glass of water instead. If you do this every time, you will develop the habit of sticking to the new behavior. This reduces your chances of relapsing into the habit when you’re full.
Allow yourself time and let go of the now-or-never perspective. Begin by changing one negative behavior at a time, or attack your poor habits in stages.
Create Reminders for Yourself
Visualization is a powerful tool in goal setting. Visual boards, smartphone reminders, stickers, and other visual reminders can keep you motivated to replace a bad habit and make it easier to rethink the unhelpful behavior when something triggers it.
Talk to a Friend
Find a friend who is willing to quit a bad habit and join your efforts. For example, replace excessive coffee intake with herbal tea or smoothies or support one another when cravings intensify.
Friends can give support even if they don’t want to modify any habits.