Why changing our behavior is so difficult.
As I write this, it is approaching the end of New Year’s Day and Sarah and I are relaxing in a cute Airbnb in the historic area of downtown Savannah, Georgia. Savannah has always been one of our favorite cities and since we spent the holidays nearby, it was an easy choice as a place to welcome in 2020. This town knows how to throw a party, and downtown was alive and bumping.
Today my social media feed has been filled with the typical New Year’s posts—some people expressing optimism for the coming year, others fondly reflecting on the past 12 months, and others proclaiming their New Year’s resolutions to their Facebook friends. My own people give me the impression that the first week of January must be incredible for gyms, health food stores, and yoga studios. I would like to think these intended behavioral changes will be long-lasting—after all I am an optimist—and yet I know that by the time Valentine’s Day comes around most of these proclamations will be distant memories forgotten by everyone except Mark Zuckerberg, who will no doubt become even richer in the process.
As I tour the country doing what I do, I often discuss how the brain forms habits and why it is so hard to change some of them. We all know that despite our intentions, most of us will not stick to our new diet or continue exercising or follow through with whatever we set our mind to earlier. We will ultimately fail, just as we have so many times in the past. Long-term behavioral change is a difficult prospect for us, a reality we are aware of but seem to think there is a secret answer out there we just haven’t encountered yet. Like when a woman asked me if I had any tips on how to lose weight and I said,” Eat less and exercise more,” she replied, “Yes, but anything else? I really like eating and I hate exercising.”
Habits are behaviors that our brain has learned to produce without thinking about it and making a resolution stick involves creating a new habit. There are behaviors we engage in automatically and there are those that require conscious effort. Imagine you are sitting on the couch trying to get motivated to go to the gym. You deliberate over the pros and cons, consider how much time you have, the other things you have to do, whether your gym clothes are clean, and how you will get there. If you have to think about a behavior, it is not a habit. In that situation, I bet you didn’t have to think about whether or not you sat on the couch, that behavior is a habit. There are people that go to the gym out of habit, so how can you become one of them and stay true to your Facebook post? Habits are learned through repetition, so the key to convincing your brain to head to the gym every day no matter what is going to require some forced repetition.
One of the most common questions people have for me is, how many repetitions does it take? There is a popular idea out there that it takes 21 days to make a habit. Assuming you engage the new behavior every day, a three-week commitment seems pretty manageable. By Martin Luther King day we should all be habitually exercising and eating kale. Unfortunately, that 21 days idea is a myth. The same is true if you’ve heard it takes 30 days or any other number of days. I know there are popular books out there that suggest the contrary, but anyone who makes a general claim like that is lying: There are too many unknown variables, and so it is simply an incalculable equation.
One of the variables is the reward value of the behavior. Not that I have personal experience, but I am pretty sure it does not take 21 days of smoking crack to develop a crack habit. Legalities aside, it has got to be way easier to launch a crack habit than a gym habit. Anything that provides our brain with intense feelings of pleasure is going to be learned fast, which is why many of us already have a set of habits we’d like to change to begin with. On the other hand, for most of us going to the gym is not immediately pleasurable and it’s going to take a lot of work to habituate that behavior. Another is the reward value of our pre-existing habits. Chances are that our brain has already learned a lot of highly rewarding habits and those are stiff competition for the new thing we are trying to learn. Also, how complicated is the behavior? Simple behaviors are easier to habituate than more complex behaviors. Sitting on the couch is incredibly easy, especially when the alternative is getting our butt in the car and driving that car to the gym to work out.
At the point in our life where we decide we need to make a New Year’s Resolution, chances are we have already learned all of the simple, highly rewarding habits we are willing to take on. Any lasting behavioral change from this point forward is going to take work, and a lot of repetitions.
So, these estimates are wrong but I think they still hold value. They are psychological placebos and can be motivating. If you go to the gym for 21 days in a row what do you think you will do on day 22? You’ll probably end up at that gym. It may still be a struggle to get there, but you’ll likely keep going out of routine if not out of habit. And eventually, maybe, it’ll be something you do automatically.
We all have them — bad habits that we wish we didn’t have but feel pessimistic about changing. Maybe you know you really have to spend less time on Facebook or playing online games. Or perhaps you’ve tried a dozen times to quit smoking. Or maybe even thinking about getting more exercise makes you feel too tired to start. Whatever habit you’re trying to break, somehow you haven’t found the key to success.
Search no more. Bad habits can be broken. Really. Here are 7 tips from the researchers who research such things:
1. Cut yourself some slack. Habits are hard to change because, well, they’re habits. There’s a reason why they are hard to break. We actually need most of the habits we have. We go through most of our days engaging in good habits, routines and activities. If we didn’t, everything we did every day would be something we’d have to think about. Instead, we’re wired to learn and put in place activities that sustain us without giving it a moment’s thought.
From the time you stumble into the bathroom in the morning to wash your face to your drive to work where you have a “habit” of following traffic rules, to your routines as you go through your workday to kicking off your shoes when you get back to the house, you are on autopilot a fair amount of the time. That frees your mind and your energy for new situations and new problems that require new decisions, creativity and actions. Unfortunately, the brain really doesn’t discriminate between the bad habits and the good ones. Once a routine is sorted into the “automatic” category, it’s hard to get it back out.
2. Identify the underlying cause. All habits have a function. The habit of brushing your teeth every morning prevents trips to the dentist. The habit of checking your email first thing at work helps you organize your day. Bad habits are no different. They too have a function.
Mindless eating can be a way to comfort yourself when you’re feeling down. Cruising the Internet for hours might be a way you avoid interacting with your partner or kids. Smoking (in addition to being just plain addictive) may be a way to take time out to pause and think. Drinking too much may be the only way you know how to be social. If you want to break the habit, you have to come to grips with whatever function the bad habit is serving.
3. Deal with the real problem. Sometimes dealing is relatively easy. If snacking on junk food all afternoon is a compensation for not eating lunch, it’s obvious that the function of eating whatever is in the vending machine is to satisfy hunger. Your “habit” is telling you that you really do need to stop and take the 15 minutes to have lunch. But if your time on video games is your way to stay out of fights with your partner, it may be painful to face how dysfunctional your relationship has in fact become.
Even if it makes you feel guilty and bad about yourself for having a bad habit, you are not likely to stop it unless you come up with another way to deal with its function. Something positive has to be put in its place. Positive can mean pleasant — like eating that lunch instead of skipping it to forage in the vending machine later. Positive can also be painful but important — like dealing with your feelings instead of stuffing them down with food, or getting into therapy with your partner instead of numbing your problems away with video games or alcohol or weed.
4. Write it down. There’s something about committing a promise to paper that makes that promise more real. Researchers have found that just writing out a goal and keeping it handy to look at every day (or as many times as day as you need to) can help you stay on track. So write down your promise to yourself and read it before every meal and at bedtime. That’s a prescription that has no side effects and is likely to help.
5. Get yourself a buddy. There’s a reason that many recovery programs include group meetings and individual sponsors or therapists. Being accountable to others is a powerful incentive to keep on keeping on. By both giving and receiving support, you keep the goal in focus. Working with an individual sponsor or counselor can help you deal with the basis of your bad habit and find positive, healthy ways to take care of yourself instead. Being accountable to a friend (in person or virtual) helps you just stay on track.
6. Give yourself enough time. Conventional wisdom is that it takes 28 days to get free of a bad habit. Unfortunately, that notion is just plain wrong. Bad habits are hard to break because they are Habits (with a capital H). Remember: your brain has put your bad habit in the “automatic” category. Once there, it’s difficult to shake it free.
Yes, some people can get a good jumpstart in 28 days. But current research shows that most of us need about three months to substitute a new behavior for a bad habit. Some people need longer. Some people need to find a gentle but powerful way to stick with the project for the rest of their lives. It depends on the habit, your personality, your level of stress, and the supports you have in place.
7. Allow for slips. You won’t be perfect. Almost everyone slips up. It’s only human. But it’s not a reason to give up. A slip provides you with information. It tells you what kinds of stressors push you off your good intentions. It tells you what you might need to change in order to stay on track. Think hard about why you slipped and get back on board. Tomorrow is another day.
Old habits can be hard to break, and new habits hard to make, but with these six basic steps you can develop new, healthy behaviors that stick.
Can You Retrain Your Brain?
Mike wrote a list, and checked it twice. This time he was going to kill it:
- Make a healthy snack
- Go to the gym
- Don’t waste time on cell phone
- Read a classic novel
- Housetrain Rex
Twenty-four hours later, Mike munched celery sticks while reading The Great Gatsby, his legs sore, but in a good way, after the hour on the treadmill while Rex waited patiently by the back door to go out …
Do you believe this? I didn’t think so!
Here’s what Mike was really doing. Mike was on the couch, one hand in a bag of chips, the other on his cell phone. The unopened gym bag and copy of Of Mice and Men lay on the floor, which Rex had soiled once again.
That’s more plausible, right? We all know habits don’t change overnight — not for simple doggies and not for big-brained human beings. But there’s good news: research shows that just like Rex can learn that he should go potty outside instead of on Mike’s gym bag, you can rewire your brain to change your own habits. 1 But we humans need a subtler approach than a few treats and “good boys” to change our ways.
Here’s how Mike (and you) can better understand how habits form and how to replace bad ones with good.
6 Steps to Changing Habits
- Identify Cues.
Something has to trigger a habit, and a cue can be anything. Maybe stress makes you crave chocolate, or the sound of your alarm triggers you to hit the snooze button. Identifying cues helps you understand what puts your habits into motion.
Once you know the cues, you can throw bad habits off track. If the alarm cues you to bash the snooze button every morning, put the alarm clock on the other side of the room. Trekking across the cold floor will likely disrupt the snooze habit.
Research shows that replacing a bad behavior with a good one is more effective than stopping the bad behavior alone. 2 The new behavior “interferes” with the old habit and prevents your brain from going into autopilot. Deciding to eat fruit every time your mind thinks “cookie” substitutes a positive behavior for the negative habit.
It’s usually hard to change a habit because the behavior has become easy and automatic. The opposite is true, too: new behaviors can be hard because your brain’s basal ganglia, (the “autopilot” part), hasn’t taken over this behavior yet. 3 Simplifying new behaviors helps you integrate them into your autopilot routines.
Habits often form because they satisfy short-term impulses, the way chewing on your nails might immediately calm your nerves. But short-term desires often have long-term consequences, like nasty, splintered, chewed up fingers. Focusing long term while trying to change some habits will help you remember why you’re investing the effort.
Research has shown that what you’ve done before is a strong indicator of what you’ll do next. This means established habits are hard to break. But the good news is, if you keep at it, your new behaviors will turn into habits, too. 4 Persistence works — at first it might be painful to get up at 5am for that jog, but soon it will be second nature.
Let’s check back in with Mike. He gave it another go with all these tips in mind. This time, he tossed the chips and replaced them with veggies; when his brain craved salty, fried potatoes, it found carrots instead. He promised himself that when he had the urge to kill some time on his cell phone, he’d disrupt the urge by picking up To Kill a Mockingbird instead (and if you look at his list, he’s killed two birds with one stone).
Finally, Mike kept his gym bag in the car so he couldn’t forget it again — the first step toward forming a new 15-minutes-on-the-treadmill-during-lunch habit. (And don’t worry about Rex — it turns out his potty problems weren’t a bad habit at all, but a protest to get attention from a neglectful owner who played on his phone too much. This problem resolved itself.)
So, habits can be changed, and with a bit of time and some effort, healthy behaviors can become second nature. Now get on it, so you can be Healthy For Good!
Founder & CEO of Lifehack Read full profile
- Pin it
Habits are hard to kill, and rightly so. They are a part and parcel of your personality traits and mold your character.
However, habits are not always something over-the-top and quirky enough to get noticed. Think of subtle habits like tapping fingers when you are nervous and humming songs while you drive. These are nothing but ingrained habits that you may not realize easily.
Just take a few minutes and think of something specific that you do all the time. You will notice how it has become a habit for you without any explicit realization. Everything you do on a daily basis starting with your morning routine, lunch preferences to exercise routines are all habits.
Habits mostly form from life experiences and certain observed behaviors, not all of them are healthy. Habitual smoking can be dangerous to your health. Similarly, a habit could also make you lose out on enjoying something to its best – like how some people just cannot stop swaying their bodies when delivering a speech.
Thus, there could be a few habits that you would want to change about yourself. But changing habits is not as easy as it seems.
In this article, you will learn why it isn’t easy to build new habits, and how to change habits.
Table of Contents
- What Makes It Hard To Change A Habit?
- What Can You Do To Change a Habit?
- Final Thoughts
- More About Changing Habits
What Makes It Hard To Change A Habit?
To want to change a particular habit means to change something very fundamental about your behavior.  Hence, it’s necessary to understand how habits actually form and why they are so difficult to actually get out of.
Habits form in a place what we call the subconscious mind in our brain. 
Our brains have two modes of operation. The first one is an automatic pilot kind of system that is fast and works on reflexes often. It is what we call the subconscious part. This is the part that is associated with everything that comes naturally to you.
The second mode is the conscious mode where every action and decision is well thought out and follows a controlled way of thinking.
A fine example to distinguish both would be to consider yourself learning to drive or play an instrument. For the first time you try learning, you think before every movement you make. But once you have got the hang of it, you might drive without applying much thought into it.
Both systems work together in our brains at all times. When a habit is formed, it moves from the conscious part to the subconscious making it difficult to control.
So, the key idea in deconstructing a habit is to go from the subconscious to the conscious.
Another thing you have to understand about habits is that they can be conscious or hidden.
Conscious habits are those that require active input from your side. For instance, if you stop setting your alarm in the morning, you will stop waking up at the same time.
Hidden habits, on the other hand, are habits that we do without realizing. These make up the majority of our habits and we wouldn’t even know them until someone pointed them out. So the first difficulty in breaking these habits is to actually identify them. As they are internalized, they need a lot of attention to detail for self-identification. That’s not all.
Habits can be physical, social, and mental, energy-based and even be particular to productivity. Understanding them is necessary to know why they are difficult to break and what can be done about them.
Habits get engraved into our memories depending on the way we think, feel and act over a particular period of time. The procedural part of memory deals with habit formation and studies have observed that various types of conditioning of behavior could affect your habit formations.
Classical conditioning or pavlovian conditioning is when you start associating a memory with reality.  A dog that associates ringing bell to food will start salivating. The same external stimuli such as the sound of church bells can make a person want to pray.
Operant conditioning is when experience and the feelings associated with it form a habit.  By encouraging or discouraging an act, individuals could either make it a habit or stop doing it.
Observational learning is another way habits could take form. A child may start walking the same way their parent does.
What Can You Do To Change a Habit?
Sure, habits are hard to control but it is not impossible. With a few tips and hard-driven dedication, you can surely get over your nasty habits.
Here are some ways that make use of psychological findings to help you:
1. Identify Your Habits
As mentioned earlier, habits can be quite subtle and hidden from your view. You have to bring your subconscious habits to an aware state of mind. You could do it by self-observation or by asking your friends or family to point out the habit for your sake.
2. Find out the Impact of Your Habit
Every habit produces an effect – either physical or mental. Find out what exactly it is doing to you. Does it help you relieve stress or does it give you some pain relief?
It could be anything simple. Sometimes biting your nails could be calming your nerves. Understanding the effect of a habit is necessary to control it.
3. Apply Logic
You don’t need to be force-fed with wisdom and advice to know what an unhealthy habit could do to you.
Late-night binge-watching just before an important presentation is not going to help you. Take a moment and apply your own wisdom and logic to control your seemingly nastily habits.
4. Choose an Alternative
As I said, every habit induces some feeling. So, it could be quite difficult to get over it unless you find something else that can replace it. It can be a simple non-harming new habit that you can cultivate to get over a bad habit.
Say you have the habit of banging your head hard when you are angry. That’s going to be bad for you. Instead, the next time you are angry, just take a deep breath and count to 10. Or maybe start imagining yourself on a luxury yacht. Just think of something that will work for you.
5. Remove Triggers
Get rid of items and situations that can trigger your bad habit.
Stay away from smoke breaks if you are trying to quit it. Remove all those candy bars from the fridge if you want to control your sweet cravings.
6. Visualize Change
Our brains can be trained to forget a habit if we start visualizing the change. Serious visualization is retained and helps as a motivator in breaking the habit loop.
For instance, to replace your habit of waking up late, visualize yourself waking up early and enjoying the early morning jog every day. By continuing this, you would naturally feel better to wake up early and do your new hobby.
7. Avoid Negative Talks and Thinking
Just as how our brain is trained to accept a change in habit, continuous negative talk and thinking could hamper your efforts put into breaking a habit.
Believe you can get out of it and assert yourself the same.
Take a look at this video to find out more:
Changing habits isn’t easy, so do not expect an overnight change!
Habits took a long time to form. It could take a while to completely break out of it. You will have to accept that sometimes you may falter in your efforts. Don’t let negativity seep in when it seems hard. Keep going at it slowly and steadily.
According to researchers at Duke University, habits account for about 40 percent of our behaviors on any given day. 1 Understanding how to build new habits (and how your current ones work) is essential for making progress in your health, your happiness, and your life in general.
But there can be a lot of information out there and most of it isn’t very simple to digest. To solve this problem and break things down in a very simple manner, I have created this strategy guide for how to build new habits that actually stick.
Even more detailed information is available in my book, Atomic Habits.
1. Start with an incredibly small habit.
Make it so easy you can’t say no.
When most people struggle to build new habits, they say something like, “I just need more motivation.” Or, “I wish I had as much willpower as you do.”
This is the wrong approach. Research shows that willpower is like a muscle. It gets fatigued as you use it throughout the day. Another way to think of this is that your motivation ebbs and flows. It rises and falls. Stanford professor BJ Fogg calls this the “motivation wave.”
Solve this problem by picking a new habit that is easy enough that you don’t need motivation to do it. Rather than starting with 50 pushups per day, start with 5 pushups per day. Rather than trying to meditate for 10 minutes per day, start by meditating for one minute per day. Make it easy enough that you can get it done without motivation.
2. Increase your habit in very small ways.
Success is a few simple disciplines, practiced every day; while failure is simply a few errors in judgment, repeated every day.
One percent improvements add up surprisingly fast. So do one percent declines.
Rather than trying to do something amazing from the beginning, start small and gradually improve. Along the way, your willpower and motivation will increase, which will make it easier to stick to your habit for good.
3. As you build up, break habits into chunks.
If you continue adding one percent each day, then you’ll find yourself increasing very quickly within two or three months. It is important to keep each habit reasonable, so that you can maintain momentum and make the behavior as easy as possible to accomplish.
Building up to 20 minutes of meditation? Split it into two segments of 10 minutes at first.
Trying to do 50 pushups per day? Five sets of 10 might be much easier as you make your way there.
4. When you slip, get back on track quickly.
The best way to improve your self-control is to see how and why you lose control.
Top performers make mistakes, commit errors, and get off track just like everyone else. The difference is that they get back on track as quickly as possible.
Research has shown that missing your habit once, no matter when it occurs, has no measurable impact on your long-term progress. Rather than trying to be perfect, abandon your all-or-nothing mentality.
You shouldn’t expect to fail, but you should plan for failure. Take some time to consider what will prevent your habit from happening. What are some things that are likely to get in your way? What are some daily emergencies that are likely to pull you off course? How can you plan to work around these issues? Or, at least, how you can bounce back quickly from them and get back on track?
You just need to be consistent, not perfect. Focus on building the identity of someone who never misses a habit twice.
5. Be patient. Stick to a pace you can sustain.
Learning to be patient is perhaps the most critical skill of all. You can make incredible progress if you are consistent and patient.
If you are adding weight in the gym, you should probably go slower than you think. If you are adding daily sales calls to your business strategy, you should probably start with fewer than you expect to handle. Patience is everything. Do things you can sustain.
New habits should feel easy, especially in the beginning. If you stay consistent and continue increasing your habit it will get hard enough, fast enough. It always does. 2
If you want more practical ideas for how to build new habits (and break bad ones), check out my book Atomic Habits, which will show you how small changes in habits can lead to remarkable results.
Habits: A Repeat Performance by David T. Neal, Wendy Wood, and Jeffrey M. Quinn
Special thanks to BJ Fogg, Leo Babauta, and Kelly McGonigal for their research and work on habit formation and willpower. I have learned a lot from each of you.
Thanks for reading. You can get more actionable ideas in my popular email newsletter. Each week, I share 3 short ideas from me, 2 quotes from others, and 1 question to think about. Over 1,000,000 people subscribe. Enter your email now and join us.
Your attitude determines your altitude. “Succesful people don’t just drift off to the top. Getting there requires focused action, personal discipline and lots of energy every day to make things happen,” says American author and entrepreneur Jack Canfield. And he couldn’t be more accurate.
So, don’t let old habits hold you back. Start building these simple yet essential habits for a happier and more productive life:
Create a morning ritual. Maybe you like to go for a run. Or, maybe you like to meditate or enjoy a healthy breakfast. Whatever it is that makes you feel supercharged, kickstart your day with that habit. Establishing a meaningful morning ritual helps you start your day on a positive, proactive note. Having a structured start to your day instead of rushing to make up for the lost time also helps eliminate stress, mental fatigue and enhances your productivity. Don’t know where to begin? Check out the morning rituals of some of the most successful people to get some inspiration!
Developing these habits require determination, oodles of patience and constant effort. Maybe it’ll take just a few weeks or maybe more than a year, it doesn’t matter how long it takes to build the habit as long as you don’t give up.
Now pull up your socks, it’s time to win at life!
I’ve been a digital journalist and writer for the past four years, primarily covering the world of lifestyle and wellness. After completing my postgraduation in
I’ve been a digital journalist and writer for the past four years, primarily covering the world of lifestyle and wellness. After completing my postgraduation in International Journalism, I worked as a Features Writer at Cosmopolitan India where I wrote extensively on pop culture, beauty and everything lifestyle. I’ve also contributed to The News Hub, Business for People and Planet and OneWorld South Asia, among other publications. Other than that, I’m an avid reader and enjoyer of quality procedurals. When not penning articles or chasing deadlines, I like to bake, dabble in poetry, make DIY craft projects and coddle my tripod cat.
Ironically, studies show saying “I’ll never do that again” makes you even more likely to do that again.
About 40% of the actions we perform in a day are habits. So we’re on autopilot almost half the time.
Let’s round up the research on bad habits and good habits and learn the best way to turn one into the other.
The first step is awareness. That cigarette doesn’t magically appear in your mouth. Noticing yourself acting habitually is a big first step.
We have to get off autopilot to make changes. It might be too hard to cut back on your habits at first. That’s okay.
Try reducing the variability in the habit. In other words, don’t even try to quit smoking; try to smoke the same number of cigarettes each day.
Find Your Triggers
Now that you’re noticing when you do your habits, focus on what triggers them. Stress? Friends? Identifying your triggers is key.
Getting rid of habits is hard. Assigning new habits to established triggers is far easier. What are you going to do now when that trigger arises?
Establish something new to take the place of the old habit.
“If-then” scenarios are one of the most powerful tools for resisting triggers. Establish a plan: “If I’m tempted to ______ then I will _______ instead.”
Rather than scrambling to resist with willpower, research shows people perform dramatically better when they already have an established “if-then” process ready. (More on how “If-then” can change your life here.)
Use baby steps, focus on consistency above all else and reward yourself for “small wins“.
Manipulate Your Context
Don’t rely on willpower. The importance of self-control is one of the biggest myths about habit change.
Instead, manipulate your environment so you don’t have to exert self-control. Throw out the donuts. Hide the booze.
If you can make good habits take 20 seconds less time to perform and bad habits 20 seconds longer, you’ll likely see big changes in your behavior.
Reminders to do the right thing (like signs or even text messages) can be a big help.
And context isn’t just the inanimate objects. Friends are one of our biggest influences and can be a potent tool for habit change.
(More on how to use context to easily change your life here.)
Don’t Give Up
Changing habits takes an average of 66 days (establishing competency at new skills takes approximately 8 weeks as well) so hang in there. (More tips are here.)
The research says these are some good daily habits and these are solid weekly habits.
Best books on the subject are The Power of Habit and Willpower. I highly recommend them both.
Join over 135,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.
This article was medically reviewed by Mayra Mendez, Ph.D., LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California.
- To break a habit, research suggests it may take anywhere from 18 to 254 days.
- The best ways to break a habit are by identifying your triggers, altering your environment, finding an accountability partner, or using a reward system.
- You can also break habits by replacing them with new habits that are more helpful to your goals.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
Everyone has a bad habit they want to break, whether it’s smoking, drinking, spending too much time on the couch, eating junk food, or biting your nails.
Here’s how to understand the psychology of habits, how to break them, and how to build healthier ones.
What are habits?
A habit is one or more behaviors repeated so often it becomes automatic, says Joyce Corsica, PhD, a health psychologist and Director of Outpatient Psychotherapy and Bariatric Psychology at Rush University Medical Center.
You can think of habits as a sort of mental shortcut formed through repetition, the environmental cues, and reinforcement of the behavior. While people often call habits “bad” or “good,” Corsica recommends shifting your perspective on habits, and prefers the terms:
- Helpful vs. not helpful
- Useful vs. not useful
- Consistent vs. inconsistent with my goals and values
If you are wondering whether you should try to break a habit, Corsica proposes evaluating whether the habit contributes to problems in your life, including the impact on your health, work, behavior, and relationships.
“Many of us have habits that contribute to our difficulties,” Corsica says. In these cases, it’s worth the time and energy to break that habit.
How long does it take to break a habit?
You may have heard that it takes 21 days to break a habit, a myth that originated in the 1960s book Psycho-cybernetics. The book was written by cosmetic surgeon Maxwell Maltz, who claimed it took patients about 21 days to become accustomed to altered parts of the body, which eventually morphed into altered habits.
The science suggests that habit change actually takes much longer to occur. A small 2009 study found that it took anywhere between 18 to 254 days to change habits.
The study participants were asked to incorporate a healthy eating, drinking, or exercise habit of their choosing into their lives. On average, the study found that it took participants 66 days of repeatedly performing a habit before the habit became automatic. Missing a day to do the desired behavior did not hinder the habit-forming process, but repeating habits at a consistent time each day allowed people to form them quicker.
While consistency is key to altering habits, know that it’s not a linear process — you may revert to old habits and have to start the process over again. “It is most important to understand that habit change is difficult, that it is a process with setbacks, and to keep moving forward,” Corsica says.
Tips to break a habit
Restraining yourself from habits you have urges to do is unsustainable, according to another 2009 study, and most likely won’t lead to real habit change.
“Interestingly, [habit change] does not seem to relate to the concept of ‘willpower,'” Corsica says.
Rather, to break a habit successfully, you should focus on the following:
- Identify triggers. Corsica says to evaluate the habit and note what might trigger it. For example, you may have developed a habit of grabbing a snack after finishing a task or when feeling stressed. Understanding what causes you to turn to unhealthy habits gives you a better grasp on how to break them. Being thoughtful about triggers is key, and it can be helpful to write them down, talk to someone about them, or simply keep them in mind.
- Alter your environment. If you’re hoping to quit smoking, it’s much harder to smoke when there are no cigarettes in your living space. Adjusting your environment to make it harder to do unhelpful habits can aid you in breaking them. If you have certain friends who you always smoke with, it might be helpful to hang out with them less or make your intentions clear with them.
- Find an accountability partner. Keep someone informed on how your habit is going. Social pressure can keep you on track with your goals. For example, a 2018 study found that people who had an accountability partner in setting weight loss goals lost more weight than those who didn’t.
- Trade unhelpful habits for helpful ones. If you’re used to drinking beer at dinner but want to quit, you can swap out the drink you normally have with something healthier like kombucha or non-alcoholic cider. Rather than disrupting your routine by not drinking anything fizzy at all, you can work with your existing triggers to help adopt a healthier habit.
- Reward yourself. Rewards help your brain learn if a habit is worth remembering or not, according to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Say you want to spend less time in front of screens. You can reward yourself for spending a certain amount of time away from a screen by eating a treat you like, for example. Your brain connects less screen time with something pleasurable, improving the chances of breaking the habit.
Since it can take about several weeks or months before you can break a habit, Corsica says that the most important thing is being kind to yourself and not giving up.
“Accept and address challenges, evaluate what is difficult and what can be done about it,” Corsica says. “People change seemingly entrenched habits all the time. It can be done.”