How Long Does It Take To Break A Bad Habit?

Have you ever thought to yourself before going to sleep "tomorrow is the day I'll change", "tomorrow is the day I'll get up early in the morning have a healthy breakfast and go for a morning jog. Tomorrow is the day I'll be the best version of myself."

Change doesn't come easy. You'll have to incorporate certain habits into your life that'll eventually lead to you becoming the best version of yourself, you'll also have to eliminate certain habits that are hindering your journey.

We all develop bad habits. Whether it’s something small like biting your fingernails or an addiction like smoking or eating junk food, bad habits can lead to long-term behaviours that are detrimental to our physical and mental health.

But then, we all know that! The tricky part is actually managing to quit! And if you’ve ever tried it yourself, you’ll know that it can be a long, laborious process.    

How long exactly? Well, the answer isn’t as straightforward as some people might think…

The 21 Day Myth

A person may take the all-important first step in deciding to put an end to a bad habit, and that’s a good start. However, it takes consistent effort and a lot of commitment to turn that positive thought into action.

One popular myth states that it takes approximately 21 days to break an addiction. The key word in that sentence mind you, is the word ‘myth’.

You see, this mistaken belief has been proven by many psychologists to be inaccurate, as it could take far longer to break a habit depending on many factors such as the habit itself, how long you’ve been doing it, and the effects that certain behaviours have on the human body. And yet the myth persists!

The origins of this 21 day myth can be traced back to the work of Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a man who worked as a plastic surgeon before becoming a psychologist. Oddly enough, he made the claim in his book about Psycho-Cybernetics in the 1960s, although he wasn’t so much referring to habits, instead stating that patients who received cosmetic surgery took about 21 days to become accustomed to altered parts of the body.

More specifically, Maltz’s suggestion was that patients required about 3 weeks to get used to different facial features following surgery, the absence of a limb after amputation, or a house they’ve just moved into.

That last point is likely what led to Maltz’s theory being applied to the act of breaking habits. However, the doctor relied heavily on patient reports rather than scientific evidence in his findings.

What’s more, the situations he described are examples of habituation, which is the process of becoming accustomed to something new. It’s similar to breaking a bad habit, but not exactly the same. Getting used to a new limb or a new house isn’t like trying to stop smoking or eat healthier!

Breaking a habit tends to involve more consistent, conscious effort while habituation is about coping with something that’s already been modified. For example, a smoker may take longer to quit because they keep suffering setbacks by buying more cigarettes. They likely think about it daily and need to make a conscious effort to change their behaviour for the better. One bad day can cause a setback.

On the other hand, someone who moves into a new house feels inclined to be positive and to get used to it as soon as possible. Their change is more permanent, since they can’t exactly move house every day, they’re forced to adapt as soon as possible.

All of this means that the 21-day myth is not applicable to most people who are looking to change their ways. So, how about less of what’s wrong and more about what’s right?

Habit Schmabit

Dr Joyce Corsica, a health psychologist at Rush University Medical Center defines a habit as one or more behaviors repeated so often it becomes automatic.  

Try to think of it as a mental shortcut in your brain formed through repetition, environmental cues, and reinforcement of bad behavior.

The good news is that even when something seems automatic, there’s still a level of choice involved. You’re the one who chooses to stock the fridge with unhealthy snacks and to go downstairs for a midnight feast, even if it seems that the fridge has some kind of magnetic force that’s drawing you in! You could choose to buy healthy foods and eat at set intervals throughout the day instead, but you don’t because you’ve gotten too used to it.

Some experts, prefer to use the terms “helpful” and “not helpful” habits, rather than “good” or “bad,” claiming it helps to shift negative perspectives. I like to think about habits that are consistent with my goals and values versus those that aren’t. That way, it seems like more of a logical adjustment rather than a radical change.  

If I'm unsure whether I should give something up or not, I think about how the action contributes to problems in my life and how it impacts my behaviour, health, work and relationships.  

Corsica says that "Many of us have habits that contribute to our difficulties" and in these instances it's worth the time and energy to break the habit.

Addiction Timeframes

Of course, there are different levels of behaviour and an addiction like smoking is generally seen as much harder to kick than a lesser habit such as nail-biting.

An article published in the British Medical Journal on smoking addiction reviewed the number of attempts it took for people to stop smoking. When the researchers defined the definition of successful smoking cessation as 1 year smoke free the previous estimates of smokers needing 7 attempts to quit jumped up to 30.

There's a strong relationship between the cycle of addiction and the subconscious pattern of a habit.

An article published in TIME magazine provided scientific evidence that it takes around 90 days for “the brain to reset itself and shake off the immediate influence of a drug.”

The research was performed by students at Yale University, who found that after 90 days going cold turkey, an addict’s decision-making and analytical functions in the brain’s prefrontal cortex began to re-engage.

This is probably why addicts who are booked into long-term rehab treatments lasting three months or more have a much higher success rate than those who undergo short-term rehab. The 90-day period seems to be enough time for a person’s brain to reset so they can enter recovery and turn new patterns of behaviour into positive habits.

That said, addiction remains a life-long battle for most people, even after they’ve seemingly recovered for good.

To break a habit once and for all, you not only need to change your behavior, you also need to consider the rewards you might have been getting from a certain habit and how to replace them. These could be social rewards, physical or emotional ones.

For instance, when I was in medical school most students would go out binge drinking regularly probably because everyone was fairly socially awkward and it gave us all the rewards of confidence and social interaction. Without drinking, you may feel insecure and have fewer opportunities to meet people and if that happens you’ll be more likely to go back to it. As we all get a bit older you realise you don't necessarily need to binge alcohol to enjoy a night out and the hangover the next day is probably not worth it, unless it's a really great party.

But giving up drinking all together can be challenging as it's such as social habit. We'll look at what it takes to kick a habit in a second but first let's dive into some science.

A Deeper Look At The Science

In a 2009 study of 96 adults seeking to change one aspect of their behaviour, researchers found that it could take anywhere between 18 and 254 days to form a new habit.

The average time for a new behaviour to become automatic was 66 days, with participants asked to adopt a new lifestyle that involved healthy eating, drinking, or exercise (they chose one each).  

Interestingly, participants who missed a day or two of their new positive regime were not hindered when it came to forming new, positive habits, but consistency was key when it came to the time of day each person carried out their assigned tasks.

It is important to acknowledge that changing habits is difficult, and that you probably will suffer setbacks, but the main thing is to keep on trying and moving forward.

Further research from 2012 suggested that a period of 10 weeks, or about 2.5 months, was a realistic target to set one’s self for changing a habit in order to see it become permanent.

Meanwhile, a review of previous research in 2018 suggested that changing your environment and using modern technology such as smartphones to monitor your progress could help to speed up your positive transformation.

Get Atomic

To make a lasting behaviour change, kick bad habits and adopt good ones James Clear the author of Atomic Habits points out that old habits return when there is nothing to sustain you beyond the achievement of a goal.

Instead of focusing on the final outcome or goal you seek to achieve, which may seem so far off, it's better to spend time creating an effective system that allows you to make progress toward your goal. Goals tell you where you want to go and systems show you how to get there.

If you set a goal of losing 20 pounds for example, there are a number of ways you can achieve that goal. However, you may revert to old habits after hitting the 20 pound mark because you did not create an effective system that helps you with your weight management that can be stuck with consistently.

People with a goals–first mentality put off their happiness for a future time. I might say I'm going to restrict my food for 6 weeks to lose weight for example. With a systems–first mentality, you enjoy every step that leads up to the goal this might be I'm going to enjoy eating healthy foods which I prep every weekend. When you enjoy what you do, you are more likely to repeat it.

It takes time to build a new habit or break a bad one and that’s why most people quit halfway. The San Antonio Spurs, one of the most successful teams in NBA history, have a quote from social reformer Jacob Riis hanging in their locker room:

“When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that last blow that did it—but all that had gone before.”

This is why there is no such thing as an overnight success. We often see people in the media celebrated for success only after they have been working away for 10 years plus in quiet anonymity.

Our habits are all based in human all habits are formed in a four–stage procedure: cue, craving, response, and reward. Something triggers a crazing, we perform a response and then we get a reward. This is how advertising works. We see some tasty food on social media, we want that food, we then make a decision to either get it for the reward of eating that food or we use our willpower to delay gratification. To make us crave the food the ad has to pop up on our feed in the first place and it has to be attractive to us, so maybe it's our favourite burger. Then once we're craving it the food has to be easy to get for example if we already have the food or it's available on Uber Eats that's way easier than having to go out and buy it ourselves. And then we've got to believe the food will satisfy us.

Reversing these behaviour change principles to break bad habits: we need to make the bad habits unattractive and ideally invisible to us. An example of this is banning cigarette advertising so that their existence isn't obvious and then they are made unattractive by increasing their price and showing the effects of lung cancer on packets. We then also want to make bad habits difficult to perform and unrewarding. An example here is I'll usually put my phone in another room when I'm working so I have to actually get up from my desk to go and get it which is harder than just pulling it out of my pocket.

All of this is an example of your environment either helping you or hindering you with your behaviour change and sticking with your habits. Hawkins Stern an economist in the 1950s  found that seeing a product for the first time can make shoppers create a need in their minds for the product. He called the phenomenon “Suggestion Impulse Buying.”. If you really want to kick a habit or create a new one you need to change up your environment. If you want to eat healthily surround yourself with people who do the same, get all the junk food out of your house and make sure your life and job allow you to get enough sleep and spend time preparing healthy food. If not, however hard it is, you may need to change up your environment if you want to make a lasting change. And if you want to make a big identity-level change you are going to need to make a big life switch. When I went solo-travelling it completely changed my perspective on life as for the first time I was out of my usual environment and culture and my eyes were opened to many more possibilities. Equally when I signed up to a Cross-Fit class for the first time and surrounded myself with like-minded people it took my fitness to the next level and because it was fun, social and easy for me to access I built a regular habit.

If you’re trying to break an unhelpful habit right now, stick with it and I’m sure you’ll conquer it eventually, no matter how long it takes! As Charlie Munger says, “The first rule of compounding is to never interrupt it unnecessarily.” The days when you make the most progress in my opinion are the ones where you just show up. When you don't feel like going to the gym or it's too wet or cold to go for a run but you suck it up and do it anyway. Maybe the gym session or run isn't your best but because you've shown up you're building that habit and facilitating that compounding.