1/30/13 - how long to form a habit?

In today's selection -- how long does it take to form a new habit? You will often hear that it takes 21 days, but the real answer is quite different than that:

"How long does it take to form a new habit? ... I looked for an answer the same way most people do nowadays. I asked Google. This search suggested the answer was clear-cut. Most top results made reference to a magic figure of 21 days. These websites maintained that 'research' (and the scare-quotes are fully justified) had found that if you repeated a behavior every day for 21 days, then you would have established a brand-new habit. There wasn't much discussion of what type of behavior it was or the cir­cumstances you had to repeat it in, just this figure of 21 days. Exercise, smoking, writing a diary, or turning cartwheels; you name it, 21 days is the answer. In addition, many authors recommend that it's crucial to maintain a chain of 21 days without breaking it. But where does this number come from? Since I'm a psychologist with research training, I'm used to seeing references that would sup­port a bold statement like this. There were none. ...   

"Thanks to recent research, though, we now have some idea of how long common habits really take to form. In a study carried out at University College London, 96 participants were asked to choose an everyday behavior that they wanted to turn into a habit. They all chose something they didn't already do that could be repeated every day; many were health-related: people chose things like 'eating a piece of fruit with lunch' and 'running for 15 minutes after dinner.' Each of the 84 days of the study, they logged into a website and reported whether or not they'd carried out the behavior, as well as how automatic the behavior had felt. As we'll soon see, acting without thinking, or 'automaticity,' is a central component of a habit.

"So, here's the big question: How long did it take to form a habit? The simple answer is that, on average, across the participants who provided enough data, it took 66 days until a habit was formed.  As you might imagine, there was considerable variation in how long habits took to form depending on what people tried to do. People who resolved to drink a glass of water after breakfast were up to maximum automaticity after about 20 days, while those trying to eat a piece of fruit with lunch took at least twice as long to turn it into a habit. The exercise habit proved most tricky with '50 sit-ups after morning coffee,' still not a habit after 84 days for one par­ticipant. 'Walking for 10 minutes after breakfast,' though, was turned into a habit after 50 days for another participant. ...

"Indeed, overall, the researchers were sur­prised by how slowly habits seemed to form. Although the study only covered 84 days, by extrapolating the curves, it turned out that some of the habits could have taken around 254 days to form -- the better part of a year! What this research suggests is that 21 days to form a habit is probably right, as long as all you want to do is drink a glass of water after breakfast. Anything harder is likely to take longer to become a really strong habit, and, in the case of some activities, much longer."


Jeremy Dean


Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don't, and How to Make Any Change Stick


Da Capo Press


Copyright 2013 by Jeremy Dean


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