How long do habits take to form?

It’s 21 days right? Everyone knows that. Those of you who are qualified Personal Trainers and/or have studied the Stages of Behaviour Change model might be saying ‘isn’t it 6 months until you’ve made a permanent change?’

A study of 96 people at University College London came up with some different answers. Participants were asked to choose just one health behaviour to turn into a habit; maybe adding a piece of fruit to their diet or increasing their daily step target for example. On average it took 66 days for a habit to become automatic; one person took just 20 days for drinking water with a meal, a 10-minute morning walk took 50 days for another, whilst one had’t manage to form a habit of sit-ups in the morning by day 84. Indeed, simple habits seemed to be formed very quickly in a matter of weeks (18 days was the quickest), whereas harder ones were estimated to take just over eight months. Missing single opportunities to build new habits did not affect the overall chances of them forming; this is great news as it means there’s no reason for you to give up if you don’t manage a perfect transition to your newly desired habit straight away.

So where does the 21 days thing come from? In the 1950s a surgeon, Dr Maxwell Maltz, was interested in how long it took patients to get used to the effects of their surgery, including everything from nose jobs to amputations. The answer? About three weeks. He then observed that this seemed true of many habits in his own life and the seed was sewn in much the same way that we believe that body language makes up 55 per cent of communication (that’s definitely not always true, but that’s for another time). He didn’t do any formal studies into it so it’s impossible to say how accurate his observations were. Single scientific studies, or even a sentence (or just part of one) can easily be picked up and become catchy soundbites that spread to all four corners of the earth. What Maltz actually said was that it probably took AT LEAST 21 days, so even he recognised right from the outset that the time it can take may vary.

How is a new habit formed?

A new habit is said to be formed when we reach automaticity; that’s the ability to do it without really having to think about it. All habits have three distinct stages:

1) A stimulus - the thing that causes us to initiate the habit. For example, your morning alarm can trigger you to perform a variety of actions.

2) A response - that alarm first and foremost will act a stimulus to get up; and that in turn can be the stimulus to head to the bathroom and brush your teeth, or to make a morning brew

3) A reward - you’ll be rewarded for brushing your teeth with that clean feeling and in the longer term, with healthier teeth and gums and Colgate advert modelling potential. Your tea or coffee will reward you with that kickstart you need to face your day.

Cornfield neuroscience.jpg

Building habits in your brain is like creating a path through a field of corn. At first, there’s no discernible route through, but once you start to tread down a path, it gets easier each time to get across the field. And then why would you bother trying to make a new path. In the same way, the more a stimulus leads to a set response and the reward is consistently reaped, the more defined the neural path becomes, reaching a point where it fires instinctively as soon as the stimulus is sensed. This can be good, in that it stops you having to consciously think about something you do every day, saving time and energy, but also detrimental if you want to make a change. The habit is engrained and it can take time to build a new path.

You might be sat there thinking, ‘I’m not very good at forming habits’ - oh yes you are! Your whole life revolves around them. Do you go to work every day? Remember to take the kids to school? Eat dinner, always watch your favourite tv show, put your clothes on? Then you’ve formed plenty of habits. It can just take time to blend new ones in when you already have so many in place.

Some changes come instantly; for example if you touch a hot stove when you’re a child, it doesn’t take you 21 days to learn not to do it again. If the motivation is high enough, it is possible for new habits to form straight away. It’s usually the exception rather than the rule, with most taking time to bed in to your routine. Elliot Berkman PhD, Director of Neuroscience at the University of Oregon considers that there are three main things that determine whether a new habit is likely to be formed…

1) The availability of an alternative - he notes that it appears much easier to replace a habit with another one than to merely stop doing something. Good examples are Vaping or chewing gum rather than smoking, or having a soft drink with dinner rather than a glass of wine.

2) The strength of motivation - using smoking as an example again, some people find that they’re able to quit when they hear they’re going to become a parent, and weight loss can be inspired when you can no longer fit into your favourite clothes.

3) The ability to change - you may need certain skills or resources in order to change. If you have these or they’re easily available, change can be quick. If planning and effort are needed, say you need to buy things or learn a new skill to make it happen, change will be slower.

The good news

As the University College London study mentioned earlier showed, failure to perform a new habit perfectly from the off is not fatal. Author Toni Bernhard refers to doing something differently just once as laying down a small groove towards changing the neural pathway. Think of it like this - imagine a river flowing through a valley. It has a set pathway, but it begins to erode a small section off to one side. At first, only a tiny bit of water flows in, the rest holds it’s course. Over time though, the new flow begins to further erode the bank, sending more and more water along the new path, until eventually a whole new route is formed. If you can work away, bit by bit, you can form a new route too. And along the journey, if you’re doing something more than you were before, then you’re improving your health, fitness and happiness.

Remember the 3 pillars of balance:

1) Your health is largely the sum of your most frequent, recent behaviours - what you do each day makes the biggest difference.

2) You have the power to change - new habits can be formed at any time in life. Sometimes it will be easy, sometimes it won’t, but it’s always possible.

3) There is no failure, only feedback - it’s not about trying once and giving up. Change is an ongoing process; you learn from your mistakes and you improve. Even then, you’ll never be perfect. Some days will be better than others, but the aim is to work towards more balanced days, more often.

Look out for the launch of my free online animated challenge coming soon; Habits for a Healthier Planet (working title) where I’ll be inviting you to join me in making small changes that help to protect our wonderful world.