These are just a few examples of habits people often try to break.
Breaking a habit isn’t as simple as merely deciding to stop a certain behavior, though that’s a great start. It takes time and dedicated effort to get rid of old habits.
“Yes, but how much time?” you’re probably wondering as you’re ready to get started.
Well, more time than you might think.
Some people say it only takes 21 days to break a habit — you’ve probably heard this estimate before.
Others suggest it often takes a lot longer, sometimes as long as several months.
There’s no hard-and-fast time frame since the length of time it takes to break a habit can depend on a lot of highly personal factors.
Keep reading for more information on how long it might actually take to kick that habit, along with some tips for success.
Experts attribute the “21 days to break a habit” myth to Dr. Maxwell Maltz, who worked as a plastic surgeon before becoming a psychologist.
He suggested people needed about 3 weeks to get used to:
- different facial features after plastic surgery
- the absence of a limb after amputation
- a house they’ve just moved into
These suggestions may have some truth to them, but Maltz seems to have relied on patient reports instead of scientific evidence.
Another key issue is that none of the above are habits people want to break. Rather, these examples describe habituation, or the process of becoming accustomed to something new.
Getting used to a new experience does share some similarities with making personal changes, but it’s not entirely the same thing.
Breaking a habit tends to involve more consistent, conscious effort.
Habituation, on the other hand, involves something you’ve already modified (such as your physical features) or something you can’t control (the loss of a limb).
You might get used to these more quickly because there’s not much else you can do.
Habits can become automatic, but there’s generally still some choice involved. You choose to stay up late because you’re used to staying up late, yes, but you also do have the ability to set an earlier bedtime for yourself.
The time it really takes to break a habit can depend on plenty of different things, including:
- how long you’ve had the habit
- whether you’ve fully integrated the behavior into your life
- what rewards (social, physical, or emotional) you get from it
- whether other behaviors reinforce the habit
- your motivation
For example, people who drink socially can pick up this habit because it makes it easier to meet up with friends who also drink socially. In this case, drinking provides the reward of social connection.
So, someone who wants to cut back on drinking might find it hard to break this habit without finding a different way to engage with friends.
Certain habits you don’t want to break can also reinforce habits you do want to quit.
Say you walk home from work every day. On the way, you pass your favorite restaurant.
Though you’ve resolved to cook at home more regularly, smelling favorite food as you walk past might convince you, that one more night of takeout can’t hurt.
The main evidence-backed time frame for habit breaking comes from 2009 research, which suggests it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days.
This study looked at 96 adults who wanted to change one specific behavior. One person formed a new habit in just 18 days, but the other participants needed more time.
It took an average of 66 days for the new behavior to become automatic, according to study results.
A 2018 review of previous research on habit formation and change recommends that habit change is more successful when the environment is changed, and using smartphones and other electronic methods are revolutionizing.
Change isn’t easy, especially when it comes to habitual behavior.
Habits happen in loops. First, a reminder provides a cue for the behavior. Performing the behavior yields a reward. That reward reinforces the desire to continue the behavior. Rinse and repeat.
You can break that habit loop, though it might take some time. These tips can help you succeed.
Aim for small changes first
People often try to break several habits at once (especially at the beginning of a new year).
This approach sometimes works, especially if the habits occur together, like staying up late and watching a lot of TV.
It can be tough to make multiple changes at once, especially when addressing deep-seated behaviors.
Working on one habit at a time and focusing on small, progressive goals often has
Say you want to break a habit of eating too much sugar. You might succeed by cutting it completely out of your diet, but you might also end up craving it constantly. So instead, you might decide to break the habit in stages.
First, you eliminate candy and sweetened drinks. Then you might cut back on baked goods, and so on.
Experts also suggest finding a replacement behavior to increase your chances of success.
If you want to stop watching TV after 9 p.m. but don’t add another activity to your evening, you might end up watching TV again out of boredom. Putting on some music and breaking out a puzzle instead could help you avoid slipping up.
Stick with it
As noted above, it usually takes some time to break a habit. So don’t worry when you don’t see results immediately.
If you find yourself repeating the behavior you’re trying to stop, try not to get down on yourself. Instead, use the slip-up as an opportunity to explore what led to the behavior.
What triggers the habit? When does it happen? How do you feel afterward?
This information can guide you going forward.
Remember, backsliding doesn’t negate previous progress.
A missed day or two typically won’t affect your long-term success. Establishing a pattern of consistency over time is more important.
Ramp up your motivation
Some bad habits (like not getting any physical activity) are best to break when possible.
The problem is, if you’re only trying to break a habit because you think you should, you might feel less driven to keep at it.
If you don’t enjoy exercise, you may not feel motivated to spend your free time doing something you dislike.
Increasing your motivation can help you have more success with your goal.
Try increasing motivation by:
- looking at the long-term benefits
- finding things you enjoy about a replacement activity
- choosing an activity you actually like
- involving a friend
- using a motivation app or a reminder system to get up and move
These strategies can work to increase your motivation for any habit or replacement behavior, not just exercise. Enlisting a support network, in particular, can be a great way to boost motivation.
Do it for you
A good first step when trying to break a habit: Ask yourself why you want to change.
Breaking some habits, like texting while driving or browsing Facebook at work, have pretty obvious benefits. It’s not always easy to recognize the far-reaching effects of other habits.
If you aren’t sure why you want to break the habit, try to identify some personal benefits.
It can also help to consider whether the habit has any negative effects on you or anyone else.
For example, nail biting might seem relatively harmless, until you think about all the germs involved (your germs, the germs on everything you touch…)
In the end, you’re more likely to break a habit when you’re invested for your own reasons.
Curiosity is part of a mindfulness approach to habit breaking.
Next time you catch yourself in habitual behavior, note your emotional mindset. Ask yourself what the habit does for you.
Are you trying to relieve a specific feeling? Shift your emotional state? Avoid different behavior?
Increasing your awareness around these feelings can help reduce the urge to act on them.
Seek professional support
If your habit negatively affects your life, consider talking to a therapist. Therapy offers a judgment-free space to identify possible causes and develop new responses.
Therapy can also help if you’ve tried to break a habit but can’t seem to quit on your own.
People develop habits for a number of reasons. Some habits occur in response to deep distress or mental health symptoms, which are difficult to address alone.
A compassionate mental health professional can help you find the tools to work toward change.
When it comes to breaking habits, persistence pays off. Even if you backslide or doubt yourself, try to keep going.
Practicing the new behavior will get easier with time — it’s just more likely to be a matter of 10 weeks than 3 weeks.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.