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How many days does it take to develop a habit? If you’re thinking about changing some routines and structures in your life, you’ve probably asked yourself this question already.
Now, the vast majority of quick answers all tell you the same: it takes about 21 days to develop a new habit.
Sounds pretty easy right?
Yep, only that’s only half the truth.
The real short answer is: it depends! Newer studies have shown that it takes in fact an average of about 66 days to form a new habit. Some might take shorter and some will take much, much longer.
So, let’s look at this question in detail.
How many days does it take to develop a habit?
If you’re thinking about changing some habits you’re not happy with, it would be very useful and encouraging to know how long it takes to form a better habit, right?
Now, unfortunately, not everybody is the same and not all habits are the same, either. So, there’s no one-fits-all solution.
However, there have been a few attempts to actually come up with a number of days it takes to develop a habit.
Is it true that it takes 21 days to form a habit?
Unfortunately, no. Well, it might be true for some simple habits, like drinking a glass of water with breakfast. And it definitely is for bad habits, such as eating junk food.
But it certainly isn’t for any habit that takes more effort and willpower.
The reason why many people think it takes 21 days to form a habit is because plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz observed a pattern in his patients and in himself. Whenever he performed an operation, it took the patient about 21 days to get used to the new look. He further observed that it takes him about the same amount of time to build a new habit.
He wrote all his observations down and published the book Psycho-Cybernetics which became a huge success.
What’s often overlooked, though, is that Maxwell Maltz only wrote down his observations. He didn’t conduct any studies and it wasn’t scientifically proven. And another important fact: He wrote that it takes at least 21 days to develop a new habit…
What is the 21 90 rule?
The 21 90 rule has the same root. It’s partially based on Maxwell Maltz’s theory but adds a layer on top.
The rule says it takes 21 days to build a habit and 90 days to make it a permanent lifestyle. This means that you’ve developed a habit if you’ve done it for 21 consecutive days. For it to stick you have to do the habit consistently for another 90 days after the first period.
While these numbers are a little more realistic than just the 21 days, it’s still too general.
However, it’s a good benchmark to start some easy habits with. The best thing is to really focus on it for 21 days straight and then try to do it more subconsciously and automatically. Once you don’t actively have to think about it anymore, then you’ve successfully developed your habit. Here’s a good article on the 21 90 rule.
So, how long does it actually take?
Now that we’ve got all the myths and general rules out of the way, let’s look at how long it actually takes to develop a new habit.
A new study has shown that it takes people anywhere from 18 to 254 days to create habit. The median was at 66 days until the new behavior felt automatic. Another very interesting fact that the study found was that missing out on the task every now and then didn’t delay the habit building process.
So, there’s no need to panic if you miss your habit every once in a while.
How do you know that your habit will stick?
That’s very easy: as soon as it feels automatic and you don’t actively have to think about it, you’ve successfully built your habit!
You’ll feel a difference in how you perceive the task. Before developing the habit it probably felt daunting and overwhelming and you needed an enormous amount of overcoming to finally do it. Once you’ve established a habit, it will be really easy. It will become an automatism that doesn’t require any of your brain power to get done.
How long does it take to break a habit?
When we’re talking about habit development you inevitably also have to wonder how long it takes to break a habit.
A bad habit is often some kind of addiction. Whether it’s sugar, smoking, watching TV, alcohol or drugs, it often feels extremely hard to change a bad habit. All these bad things act as drugs that release dopamine which makes us feel good. This means our brain wants more of it.
Neuroscientist Dr. Elliot Berkman says: “The time it takes to break a habit depends on three factors, which I describe in order of descending importance: First is the availability of an alternative habit. It’s much easier to start doing something new than to stop doing something habitual without a replacement behavior. That’s one reason why smoking cessation aids such as nicotine gum or inhalers tend to be more effective than the nicotine patch.
Second is the strength of the motivation to change. People who want to kick their habit for reasons that are aligned with their personal values will change their behavior faster than people who are doing it for external reasons such as pressure from others.
Third is the mental and physical ability to break the habit. Longtime habits are literally entrenched at the neural level, so they are powerful determinants of behavior. The good news is that people are nearly always capable of doing something else when they’re made aware of the habit and are sufficiently motivated to change.”
So, there’s really much more to breaking a bad habit than simply time. Much more important are the alternatives, your willpower and mental strength.
Do you need to break an old habit when developing a new one?
Yes, in order to build a habit, you often have to break another habit first.
For instance, if you want to build the habit of eating healthy every day, then that also involves breaking the bad habit of eating junk food.
Technically, you can establish a good habit and still keep the bad one next to it. But what’s the point, right?
If you really want to develop a new habit then you also need to get rid of the old, bad one.
And as we’ve just seen in the previous paragraph, it’s much easier to break a bad habit if you can replace it with another one, anyway.
Why is it so hard to break a bad habit?
Bad habits and addictions release dopamine to our brain which makes us feel good. Even though we know, that this habit isn’t good for us in the long run, we simply ignore that thought because it just feels so good right now.
In fact, habits that develop under the influence of dopamine stick way faster. This is why you can literally develop a bad habit within a few day!
The weirdest thing is that dopamine let’s you crave for your “drug” when you don’t have it. This even happens if you don’t have a positive experience while taking it.
I’ve experienced that myself. I adore chips! It’s something I feel like I just can’t get rid off… I mostly buy the same onion and cream kind because they’re just soooo good.
Now, the funny thing is that for the last few weeks, my tongue somehow hurt while eating the chips. So, it wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience. But that doesn’t keep me from wanting them again a week later… It’s as if my brain just deletes that memory!
Breaking bad habits takes an enormous amount of willpower. And willpower is a limited resource. Sometimes, we just don’t have enough of it to actually get rid of a bad habit…
Why are habits useful?
Now let’s get back to the good habits and look at why habits are useful.
As I’ve just mentioned, to change something like a routine or a habit in our lives, willpower is required.
Have you ever noticed that it’s super hard to motivate yourself to work out once a week? You know you should do it but you didn’t think about it all week. And now it feels like this super huge burden that totally overwhelms you.
If you do it every day, it’s totally different, though, right? It suddenly just becomes that thing that you do every day without thinking much about it!
That’s the power of a habit!
Habits and dopamine
Not only bad habits release dopamine in our brains.
Our brain likes routines because it doesn’t require much thinking or willpower. This makes us happy and so dopamine is released.
It’s not as much as when dopamine is involved while building the habit. But it’s still a release of the “pleasure” chemical in our brain which makes us want more.
The role of automaticity
If you start developing a new habit, it will only stick once it feels automatic. If you still have to actively think of it and forget it all the time, then it’s not a habit, yet.
Once it’s automatic, its real power is unleashed!
You can start living the best lifestyle you could imagine by incorporating habits and routine. And the best thing is it will soon feel super easy. No overwhelm and no burden that pulls you down.
Habits clear up brain space for more important things
Our brain loves habits because it clears up space for more important things.
If you have to think and fight with yourself about doing the dishes after eating every single day, then this will need brain space which means you’ll have less resources for more important and complex things.
Setting up a habit for that, means it’s automatic. No willpower and no thinking is used for it. You just do the dishes and you can even use your brain while doing it, to plan work for the next day, e.g.
How can I create a new habit?
There are numerous ways that can help you developing a habit.
But let me first give you some tough love: These tools are great to help you stay on track. But to really develop a new habit, you need willpower more than anything!
You need to make that mental shift first, before you can start using any of these tools. Otherwise you’ll only be frustrated even faster because these tools show you how you failed.
With that out of the way, let’s look at your possible helpers.
- Habit tracking: Habit tracking basically just means what it says: you track your habits. The only thing you need is a calendar or a notebook. Every day that you’ve done your habit, you cross it off. This let’s you easily see your progress.
- Focus on one habit at a time: Don’t create overwhelm by wanting to change everything at once. Instead, start with one routine and move to the next once the first is firm.
- Start small: start with a small, easy habit. This can be a simple routine, such as drinking a glass of water with breakfast, flossing your teeth before going to bed or making your bed every day. Just start with something that will be easy to stick to so you can stay motivated.
- Reward yourself: it’s very important to reward yourself for sticking to your habit. Just make sure this doesn’t start a new bad habit 😉